Yom Kippur 5777/2016: Marei Kohen & The Tipping Point

Niggun for “Marei Khohen

[Note: The link takes you to a recording and the lyrics.]

This niggun, this melody, is for the piyyut Marei Kohen, describing the appearance of the High Priest emerging from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, which we will sing again as part of the Avodah service. The location of this piyyut is at the end of the Avodah service, which is the tipping point of Yom Kippur, the point at which today is transformed from day of solemnity and trepidation into a day of joy and celebration. This tipping point reveals the true nature of Yom Kippur, which is often misunderstood.

When I was a child, I had a certain perspective on what Yom Kippur was all about. I remember the day feeling long, sitting in services for a long time, or playing outside during the day. What I don’t recall clearly at a young age why anyone explaining to me why we went to Yom Kippur services. I remember one particular year when I was in middle school helping to prepare for the break fast, and my mom went off to the Yizkor service, which she did every year since her father passed away when she was fourteen years old. [Our synagogue did Yizkor right before Neilah to ensure a Neilah crowd.] This was the first reason that I recall anyone stating out loud about going to a Yom Kippur service – to remember the dead. Naturally, from then onward, I associated this day with sadness and death.

I could not have been more wrong. That is not what this day is about. The festival of Rosh Hashanah is a day of introspection, trembling before God who sits in judgment on our every deed. That day is the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe, of cheshbon ha-nefesh, soul accounting. It is on Rosh Hashanah that we begin to ask ourselves the hard questions that we need to ask of ourselves at least once a year:

    • Where have I fallen short in the past year?
    • What could I have done better?
    • How will I do better in the coming year?

If we have been digging deeply into these questions over the past several days, and come away with a vision of who we can become in the coming year, of ways in which we can begin to re-make ourselves, to improve our behaviors and actions in the world, that is all well and good.

And one could encounter during this process moments of despair, of throwing one’s proverbial hands into the air, and simply giving up on trying to do any better, as if to say, “This is who I am, and I am not going to change.” Or worse – if someone would come to the notion that they simply do not deserve another year of life. That would be tragic. We all deserve one more year, one more chance, one more opportunity to change, to grow, to become the people that we have the capacity to become.

This is why we have Yom Kippur.

The Apter Rebbe, the grandfather of Abraham Joshua Heschel, described our two major fast days in the following way. On Tisha B’Av, with all of the heartache, tragedy and destruction in our collective past, who could eat on such a day! But on Yom Kippur, a day on which we come before God, articulating our misdeeds together as a community, and confident in God’s love and forgiveness, on such a joyous day, who needs to eat!

Yom Kippur day is a day of optimism. A day to turn away from despair. On this day, we come together to lift each other up. To remind each other that we are all in this long project of life together. This is why we rise and confess our shortcomings together. The nature of Yom Kippur is to move from the trepidation and fear of Rosh Hashanah into the joy and loving compassion of Yom Kippur and into the pure joy of Sukkot. On this day, we finish looking back over the past year, and we forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. We don’t forget them. That would be foolish. But we accept ourselves as flawed, imperfect, as works in progress, and forgive ourselves for the past year. And we hang on to those memories so that we can learn from the past year, to transform those misses into lessons that we can learn from, so that we can move forward in wholeness and acceptance. We move forward.

We began Yom Kippur last night, though, still in the mood of trembling and trepidation, in that Rosh Hashanah mode. Over the course of this day of Yom Kippur, we shift from that mode into the joyous mode of loving compassion and forgiveness. And this is the moment in the day, the fulcrum, the tipping point, where we begin that shift.

On Rosh Hashanah, we connect back to that first day when humanity emerges into Creation. Ha-adam, the human, stepped into the world, and in those first few hours of life, encountered God, heard one divine imperative (“Don’t eat from that tree.”), violated that one, simple imperative, and immediately experienced a sense of exile, of disconnect, of distance between themselves and God. God called out to them “Ayekah? / Where are you?” And God has been calling that out to us every since.

Ayeka? Where are you? That questions carries so many nuances within it:

  • Locate yourself.
  • Know where you are in the world.
  • Know where you are in your life.
  • Know where you are in relation to God, or in relation to the Universe, or in relation to everyone else in your life.
  • Know where you are hiding.
  • Know why you are hiding.
  • Know who is seeking you.
  • Know what it will take for you to come out of hiding, and to end the exile, to close the distance, to re-establish the connection.

Where are you? Ayeka?

For Israel, we hid in Egypt for so long, in the place of narrowness and confinement, until we finally cried out when we could take it no longer, when we finally understood for the first time that there was even a distance to fill, hope that could met, a reality that could change. It was only at that moment that we cried out and moved God, the most moved Mover (sorry Aristotle!), to help take us out of Egypt.

And it was not a perfect process, all neat and tidy. It was messy, and had moments both of victory and moments of loss. We created distance when we sinned with the Golden Calf, when we despaired over the report of the Scouts, and so many other moments of frustration, fear, and rebelliousness.

What did we do then?

We and God recreated the Garden of Eden in our midst in the form of the Mishkan, a place where we could go back and mend what was broken. We made a space where the possibility of experiencing God’s love and forgiveness would be palpable, visible, knowable. Where for one moment, we and God could both come out of hiding and affirm our love for each other, even if only for one moment out of each year. That would be enough.

With the genus of artisans and craftspeople, we took our most precious materials and created the Mishkan, our own portable version of the Garden of Eden. And every year, we appoint one of us, the High Priest, to re-walk the path of the first human, to push aside the curtain, past the turning flaming swords, and re-enter the Garden, to a time when it was just one human being and God alone together in the world, and repair the relationship between us and God, to mend the breach, to use all of the words that they can muster to bring God and Israel close again.

And it takes the High Priest so few words, just a few dozen, three short confessions, one for the High Priest and his family, one for their tribe, and one for the entire people. Only a few smatterings of words, but uttered with purity of heart and sincerity of mind.

That portable Garden of Eden moved with us, and it moved us. It was eventually made into a permanent space in Jerusalem, and was destroyed, rebuilt, and in the end destroyed. How insane is that? What confidence and loyalty must it have taken to take the time and resources again and again to recreate that space in which the possibility of God’s love and forgiveness could be felt? And it is gone. But it is just a space. The time still exists. The day is still on the calendar. The idea of the High Priest, the Holy of Holies, of the Garden of Eden still exist. The rest is just window dressing.


  • We are not standing on the mountain in Jerusalem, but we are all standing at the base of an inward mountain, a mountain of our misdeeds and our sorrows.
  • There is no Temple in Jerusalem, but the memory and this space.
  • There is no High Priest, but there is us.
  • There is the moon, which on the tenth of day a month is in the shape of an oval, which developed identity, of being grown up enough to come face to face with God.
  • Is still today, that space that we carve out of the year to do the same the the first human wishes they could’ve done, to do the same as the High Priest would have done.
  • There is still the possibility that a smattering of words can shape not just today, but our entire year ahead.

For today, I have asked all of you to write down your prayer, your blessing, your hopes and aspirations for the coming year is no more than 18 words. [Note: This was done via email in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.] I hope that many of us did that, and that you wrote them down and brought them with you today. And even if you did not, that’s ok. There is still the time today, still the opportunity, to compose those words in your heart and in your mind.

These words are not for you alone; they are for all of us. They are words that can lift us up, inspire us and give each of us hope for the coming year.

Here is what I would like you to do:

  1. In Private. First, take out the paper that has your 18 words on it, and if you did not do that, take some time now to reflect on what your 18 words would be for the coming year. Take time time to re-read what you wrote, and reflect on those words. Where did they come from? What moved you to choose those words? What do they point to for the coming year? What do they call you to do in the next twelve months?
  2. Share with another. Next, I would like you to offer those words to someone sitting near you. It can be someone next to you, in front of you, or behind you. Feel free to move a little closer to them if you can. Introduce yourselves. Connect with that person in some way. Perhaps it is just by looking into their eyes, maybe by holding their hand or their hands, if appropriate. If you are so inclined, perhaps put a tallit over your heads to make a private space.
    1. Decide who will go first.
    2. Listen to each others words. Take turns.
    3. As you listen to the words of the other person:
      1. How do those words touch you?
      2. How do they lift you up, inspire, or comfort you?
      3. What do those words call on you to do differently in the coming year?
  3. Public Sharing. Next, I would like to invite no more than 18 of us who have written their 18 words to come and share what you have written with all of us. [Note: Several members came to share what they wrote or composed.] What do we do when we hear words of blessing, hope and inspiration? We say Amen! So after each of these 18 words, we will respond as one community: Amen!

May all of these words, these beautiful, heartfelt smatterings of words, have the power:

  • to help us feel God’s presence in our lives over the coming year.
  • to help us make God’s presence felt in the coming year.
  • to lift us up.
  • to give us the optimism that this will be a year of goodness and light.
  • to come out of hiding and find each other.
  • to inspire us to seek atonement.
  • to help us cleanse us of all our misdeeds.
  • to help us begin this new year afresh.
  • to renew our lives.

Conclude with the Niggun for “Marei Kohen”


Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: Leaning In To Israel

I have a confession: Sometimes, I want to walk away from Israel. For many reasons, I could succumb to this feeling of disconnect, just turn my back on Israel, and never give Israel a second thought, and here are a few reasons why for me:

  1. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, out of touch with the average Israeli Jew, is openly hostile to any form of Judaism that does not fit within their narrow definitions of Judaism.
  2. Israel, an authority over millions of Palestinians, is at risk of losing its democratic nature.
  3. Israel’s government and many of the Israeli population seem to have a very different set of values than me.
  4. Israel has one of the largest poverty-wealth gaps in the world.
  5. Israel has serious internal divisions, some of which are bitter, hostile and acrimonious: the secular/religious divide, Ashkenazi/Sephardic/Mizrahi ethnic and cultural divisions, a failed political Left Wing and increasingly strong Center and Right, tensions between Jewish citizens and Arab citizens.
  6. Supporting Israel in any way is increasingly met with hostility and anti-semitism in the public sphere, especially on college campuses.
  7. And so on…

But disconnect is the symptom of deeper feelings, of frustration, sadness and anger towards Israel, which are all connected to my underlying deep love for Israel. It’s complicated. The disconnect is one of my emotional survival strategies pulling me, tempting me, saying, “Just disconnect. Become indifferent.” This past summer, the celebrated Jewish author and educator Elie Wiesel passed away, and in recent years, he often spoke to people about this indifference:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.

The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.

And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I struggle with my negative feelings about Israel. To ignore them, to choose indifference, would take away the heartache, but it would also take away my connections to the love, the beauty, the faith and the vibrant Jewish life that also exists in Israel.

I choose not to become indifferent towards Israel. And yet, I will not ignore the flaws and issues that Israel faces.

Here is the old narrative, that was what I was raised with, and may or may not work for us any more: since Israel is critical for Jewish survival, one cannot criticize Israel, for fear of being called a self-hating Jew.

Many people, especially younger people, are not sure if they can both support and criticize Israel at the same time. The rose-colored Israel taught about in the U.S. for decades simplifies Israel’s complexities and shortcomings. We need to abandon this outdated narrative, and talk about Israel in a new way.  How can we express anger and criticism, at the same time that we love and support Israel?

I found an answer for myself to this question in Harold Kushner’s “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.” During the course of Job’s dialogue with his companions, Job gets angry at God, who as far as Job can see, has not let him know why he is suffering as much as he is.

Kushner asks us: “Are we allowed to be angry at God? Does Job’s anger enhance or lessen our opinion of him?”

Kushner responds: If one cannot be angry at God, how can one whole-heatedly love God? If a relationship with someone cannot be fully expressed, if one cannot offer a criticism for fear of an angry response, then they don’t have a full, healthy relationship with God, or their spouse or anyone. For Kushner, Job’s anger is heroic, honest, has integrity, and an unwillingness to pretend to have a piety he would like to feel but cannot. Honest anger is better than calculated flattery.

In Deuteronomy, Moses also expresses his anger at God for not letting him enter the land of Israel. Prior to this, Moses speaks about revering and serving God, and following God’s commandments, and but a few short chapters later, after expressing his anger, Moses speaks about loving God: “You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” You cannot love anyone wholeheartedly unless you can express anger towards that person when circumstances warrant. Being angry at someone who matters to us need not shatter a relationship.

Israel is important enough to engage with fully. If we are frustrated at Israel for the way it behaves as a state, but we feel we cannot speak out, we are emotionally compromised. If we shut down the loving critique of others, we keep others from expressing their wholehearted love of Israel. We need to express that love, praise and critique. It is not easy. For me, the story that we have been telling about Israel no longer works. We need to tell Israel’s story in a new way, and it needs to be complete, with eyes wide open.

I recently heard the American-Israel journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, and he talked about “talking about Israel”:  We each need to find our own way to talk about Israel – as Jews who are not citizens of the state of Israel, and yet who are linked to Israel, the land, the people, the state, by a shared history and a shared destiny. We Americans are part of the most powerful Jewish community in the world, and, yet, we are one of the most ignorant. Only ten percent of American Jews claim to be able to hold a conversation in Hebrew. We don’t know enough about Israel, its past or its present, myself included. We must remember how to tell our story as a people. We need to relearn this.

We know Israel is not perfect, nor is it evil. We cannot simply replace one simplistic narrative with another one. We need to tell our children, our grandchildren about Israel in a comprehensive holistic way. Israel can handle it. They are tough.

Here are some of the primary reasons why Israel matters to me:

  1. Israel is the our ancestral homeland. Almost the entire Torah is about the journey back home to the land of Israel.
  2. Israel is the our spiritual center. During prayer, we turn towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been on our minds and lips every single day for two thousand years. During the Festivals, we say: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Israel is where Judaism emerged, survived, evolved again and again.
  3. Israel matters to me because it is Jewish, the place where the fullness of Judaism can be lived out. Writer and thinker Rabbi Danny Gordis, with whom I often disagree, wrote that “ethnic and national diversity should be encouraged and promoted. People thrive and flourish most when they live in societies in which their language, culture, history and sense of purpose are at the center of public life.”
  4. Israel has been and still is a haven for Jews escaping persecution. Israel’s existence continues to be critical for  the physical survival of the Jewish people.
  5. Israel is where majority of Jewish life is and will take place. Seventy years ago, only 700,000 Jews lived in Israel, while 6 million lived in the U.S. Today, Israel is where half of the roughly twelve million Jews in the world currently reside, and each and every one of those lives matters to me, even the ones with whom I profoundly disagree. In only a few years, Israel will be the place where an increasingly significant majority of Jews will live, and where the majority of Jewish life and creativity will be taking place.
  6. Israel is amazing and inspiring because it is an example of the power of a people to infuse 4,000 years of history and tradition into the building of a modern state that embodies the highest aspirations toward which humanity can reach.
  7. Israel matters to me because it is a nation where democracy has flourished, intellect is celebrated, there is an abundance of artistic genius and technological innovation, and economic success.

As I go over each of these reasons, I can hear in my heart a little voice saying, “Yes, but…Yes, but…” Each of these points has many “Yes, buts…” We must include them in how we talk about Israel. Today, I will touch upon two of them.

I am deeply concerned for the lives of every single Palestinian, first and foremost because they are human beings and have inalienable human rights. [I am aware of the acts of injustice in Israel’s past towards the Palestinians, and of some Palestinian’s glorification of violence.] I am troubled by path Israel’s current administration has taken towards its occupation of the Palestinian people, and of the injustices that they live under on a daily basis. Also, I am terrified of what a continued occupation would mean for the heart and soul of the democratic state of Israel. I hold out the hope, however slim, for a two-state solution. I hold out the hope that there can be truth and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, where Israelis and Palestinians will one day become the closest of friends and partners in the region. I do not see how to get there today, but that does not extinguish my hope for that future. In the words of Shimon Perez, z’’l, “Despair is not an option.”

I am deeply troubled by the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, by the attitude of most Israelis towards rabbis, by the polarization between the secular community and the religious community, by the politicization of religion in Israel, and the increasingly fundamentalist actions and views of the Chief Rabbinate, who wields power but commands little respect. I hold out hope that there will be a dissolution of this institution, a clean separation between religion and state, and a wider appreciation for the full range of ways that Jews around the world freely express their Judaism.

Headlines and news about Israel focus on the intense political, security, and military issues that Israel faces, and, yes, they are distressing. At the same time, they can not and should not tell the entire story, no more than can the story of U.S. be reduced to its headlines.

I call upon all of us to deepen our relationship with Israel; to read voraciously about Israel and its history, to better understand Zionism past and present, the chaotic Middle East, and Israel’s present day situation; to talk about Israel with people who agree and, more importantly, disagree with you; to develop relationships with people who live there, and with some of the many organizations doing remarkable work there to make Israel the nation that Judaism insist that it can become.

I call upon us all to learn more about Israeli culture, its musicians, its poets, authors, painters, sculptors, its scientists, technology innovators, economic movers and shakers, its athletes, its comedians, and more.

To conclude, I want to share a story from the Talmud that can provide a new narrative framework for how we think about Israel, and the story centers on the relationship between two sages: Rabbi Yochanan, a master of Torah learning, and Resh Lakish, who formerly was a master thief and brigand. They met while swimming on day, and formed an immediate connection. Rabbi Yochanan even arranged for his sister to marry Resh Lakish.

One day they were debating in the Beit Midrash, and when Resh Lakish offered an answer to a questions about the manufacture of weapons, Rabbi Yochanan snidely brought up Resh Lakish’s unsavory background, which led to a major falling out between them. During this time, Resh Lakish died, and the other Rabbis tried to make Rabbi Yochanan feel better and sent a bright young student to him as a measure of comfort. Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, the young sage, sat before Rabbi Yochanan, and to every statement that Rabbi Yochanan would say, Rabbi Elazar would say to him, “There is a source that supports you.”

“He said, “Are you like [Resh Lakish? Resh Lakish] – when I would speak of a matter, he would challenge me with twenty-four objections, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law. And you say, ‘there is a source that supports you?!’ Do I not already know that I have spoken well?!”  [Rabbi Yochanan] went out and tore his clothes and he cried and said, “Where are you [Resh Lakish]? Where are you  [Resh Lakish]?” And he wailed until his mind left him. The Rabbis asked for mercy for him, and he died.”

Just as these two sages comes very different backgrounds, share a common Torah, and engage in serious debate about it, Jews in Israel and the U.S. and Diaspora come from very different places, and yet share a common heritage, and should engage together in what it means to live out the Torah’s ideals.

When these two sages had their no-holds barred debates for the sake of Heaven, something new was created, something that neither of them could have imagined before. Not just decisions on matters of law, but a fuller understanding of the law, and of each other. Israel and we don’t need yes-men. Israel and the worldwide Jewish community need each other: to debate the issues, the way in which the state makes decisions, the way in which the diaspora relates to the state. Support is not saying, “You’re right.” Support is saying how they might be wrong twenty-four different ways, and then to be willing to hear twenty-four ways in which they still might be right.We need to sharpen each other.

What emerged from these sagely debates was a profound friendship, a relationship so strong that neither could live without the other. We need to engage with Israel at this level: deeply, and profoundly, so that each of us knows that we have the other’s back, and at the same time, each one can say to the other: not like that. We must show Israel other ways of being Jewish. Israel must show us what it means to be Israeli.

We need to see Israel as it is, warts and all, and love Israel and be angry at Israel, and debate, with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might. We cannot turn away. We cannot become indifferent.

  • The opposite of indifference is life.
  • The opposite of indifference is faith.
  • The opposite of indifference is art.
  • The opposite of indifference is love.

Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: Taking Our Stand in the World

Hayom – Today has many names: Rosh Hashanah / The Start of the Year, Yom Ha-Din / Judgment Day, Yom Ha-Zikaron / Remembrance Day, and finally Yom Harat Olam / The Day of Birthing the World.

The Rabbis debate about this final name. For some, this day is the anniversary on which the entire universe was created, evoking a time before creation, when all that filled the universe was God, and that God contracted to make room for the world. God said, Let there be light! And there was light. And the rest unfolded from there.

For others, this day was not the primordial Day One, but rather this day connects us to the sixth day of Creation, the day on which humanity entered the world, the day on which Ha-adam, the first human, steps from nothingness into being. Or perhaps today connects us to the moment when humanity first began to see itself as a being with a unique relationship to the world – to its land, sky and oceans, to all that crawls, walks, flies and swims on it, and to its Creator – unlike that of any other creature on the planet.

Today, I want to explore the relationship that was formed when human consciousness emerged and said for the first time: “I,” and then said, “To What Purpose?” Because saying “I” is not enough. One must relate to that which is encountered in a specific way, with a certain attitude.

On the edge of this new year, we reflect on the past year: to ourselves, the people in our lives, our communities, and to God. Today, I ask: how have we related, acted and connected towards our world? How shall we relate to our world in the coming year and beyond?

This may be the most important question of our entire generation, the answer to which our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren deserve to know our answer.

What is our stance in the world?

In his book I and Thou, the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes about the two possible stances (or attitudes) a human being can take in the world, which he terms an I-It stance and an I-Thou stance.

When a human stands in the world with the attitude of I-It, every thing is perceived, felt, acted upon as a object. That object has boundaries, edges, beginnings and endings. If I encounter another – be it an It, or a He, or a She – I relate to that other being as a bounded, finite object.

When a human stands in the world with the attitude of I-Thou, there are no bounds. There is no possession, no having, no acting upon, no objectification. What matters is the relationship between the I and the other, as Thou, the infinite subject, the one with whom I stand in relation.

Do we relate to people with the attitude of I-It, as subjects acting upon objects, or with the attitude of I-Thou, as a subject meeting another subject, as a genuine act of meeting and encounter?

And then what of the natural world? Buber views humanity’s potential relationship to nature in similar ways:

“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture…I can perceive it as movement… I can classify it in a species and study it…I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it as an expression of law…I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number. In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution… I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.”

For Buber, when someone encounters an animal, it comes close to approaching the I-Thou level of experience, but not quite. When it comes to encountering a non-creaturely part of Creation, such an encounter can be experienced in a number of ways, but, for Buber, the encounter with a tree is never a meeting with another soul, with a Thou.

In this instance for me, Buber falls short. Though he is a scholar of the Hassidic movement in Europe, which draws much of its spiritual nourishment from the Jewish mystical tradition, Buber shies away from that kind of experience when it comes to the tree in particular and the natural world in general.

For the Jewish mystic, the world is also divided into two. On the one hand, we have the world of separation, olam ha-peirud, the world as we normally perceive it: where all things have edges, beginnings and ending, space between them, creating a complex web of relationships and separations.

On the other hand, we have the world of unity, olam ha-achdut. For the Jewish mystics, the true nature of the world is radically different from how we normally perceive it. God is not a Being  – out there, over there, or up there – but rather God is Being itself, the very fabric of the universe, the underlying flow of energy that suffuses, fills and animates all of Creation. We normally see the world as a world of separateness, but deep down, beneath the external, physical shells, everything is God.

So when we encounter a tree, there may not be a specific tree soul, but that meeting does have the potential to become an encounter with the divine, with God. The tree is a garment, an external form, for the divine, an emanation of God in our world. Any encounter with any aspect of Creation not only has the potential to evoke in us a sense of wonder, beauty, and awe, but every encounter with an aspect of Creation has the potential to be an encounter with God, a meeting between an I and the Ultimate Thou.

If we take our stance towards Creation in solely the mode of I-It, we relate to the world as a collection of objects, as a means towards an end, resources to be consumed for our personal needs. How then would we live our lives?

If we take our stance towards Creation solely in the mode of I-Thou, each encounter with the natural world becomes a sacred event, a moment of coming face to face with eternity, with the Eternal Thou. How then would we live our lives?

Regarding the challenges and issues facing our world, I will not list statistics and data. Anyone can go look up that information in a matter of minutes. I am more interested in the one thing that we truly have control over, which is how we respond to that information.

The Jewish people have grappled with the question of “What should be our stance in the world?” for millennia. Unlike Buber and other Jewish philosophers, who speak in the abstract, the Torah expresses itself in the concrete garb of narrative. This question is at the heart of our two great Creation narratives: Genesis 1 and 2. For some commentators, these two narratives have illustrated two diametrically opposing points of view, however, this view oversimplifies these two narratives.

What is the enduring truth that we learn about our stance in the world from these two narratives?

Genesis 1, the majestic sweeping mytho-poetic Creation narrative, where God, utterly uncontested, creates order through the power of speech. Over the course of six spans of time, primordial chaos is transformed into a world with boundaries, divisions and limits; flora and fauna that self-propagate; all characterized as: Good. Humanity, created in God’s Image, enters as the penultimate act of Creation and is blessed as such:

“God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.”

Genesis 1 presents humanity as blessed, not only with progeny, but also the imperative to fill the earth, conquer it, and to “hold sway.” Unreservedly hierarchical, Genesis 1 is often interpreted as humanity’s mandate to relate to the world as an It to our I. From this point of view, the world is nothing more than the setting where people live, and exert their dominion and mastery. However, that dominion is limited.

The term for “hold sway” does connotes absolute or fierce exercise of mastery, but the “holding sway” does not apply to the physical environment; it only applies to animals, and, at the same time, those animals are not permitted as food. This vision of humanity is one of controlling the natural world, about doing what it takes to establish human civilization and permitting us to harness the power of animals to help with that project. But not to eat them.

Rather than inflate our human ego, this narrative can help us cultivate our humility. The gnat was created long before us. We are welcomed into the world in the last hour of Creation, into a furnished world with a banquet laid out before us, and we live with the acute awareness that we are nothing but guests in this palace of a world.

Also, the newly created human being enters the scene, but must delay their mastery for one day. Right on the heels of their creation is the capstone of Creation: Shabbat, a day on which our divinely ordained conquest ceases. Instead of rushing to fill, conquer and subdue our world, our first day was spent appreciating the world, inhabiting it without impacting it.

Fullness, conquest and mastery, with strong limits.

Genesis 2 is often interpreted as the counter-narrative balancing out the alleged “carte blanche” divine imperative to conquer the earth, but since that is not the only reading of Genesis 1, it should not surprise anyone that Genesis 2 is also a more complex narrative.

Genesis 2, the earthier of the two narratives, focuses more on relationships. God plants a garden, forms a human from the earth, and then places the human there. God then that it is not good for the human to be alone. First, God creates the animals, bringing them to the human, who names them, creating an intimacy and familiarity. Let us examine the formation of this human being, and it’s mandate:

“The Eternal God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and God placed there the human God had fashioned….And the Eternal God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it…”

The focus is our purpose. The Hebrew phrase “l’ovdah u-l’shomrah” is sometimes translated as “to serve it and to guard it.” This translation implies that we should see our role as stewards of the world, an understanding that would balance out the limited mastery of Genesis 1. However, this is not the only translation of this phrase, which contains its own internal tension. “L’ovdah” can mean “to serve it” but it can also mean “to cultivate it” or “to work it.” This reading actually gives unlimited license to the human than Genesis 1. There is no limit to what is a food source or to what can be “worked or cultivated.”

At the same time, there is the second verb, “u-l’shomrah.” This word could mean “to protect or guard the world,” but protect it from what? One understanding is that we are to protect the world from us, the ones doing the cultivation. From this point of view, we are commanded to both cultivate the world, and to make sure that our cultivation is done carefully within limits. Perhaps the best understanding of this phrase is “to serve and preserve.”

An imperative to work but with limits.

We have before us three narratives, one philosophical, two biblical, each with its own internal thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

We stand in the world in the mode of I-It, of mastery and dominion, of cultivation – sometimes. We have basic needs: food, water, clothing, shelter. And humanity has aspirations far beyond its basic needs. We have dreams, visions, the desire to create, and build, to use the raw materials of creation to help fulfill those visions. Many civilizations, including ours, have exceeded this mandate. We also destroy, poison, pollute, and ruin, sometimes in noble pursuit; more often, not.

We stand in the world in the mode of I-Thou, Shabbat-centered, of careful stewardship – sometimes. Sometimes we carefully consider what our limits should be when working the earth, using its resources and developing increasingly complex and potentially toxic technologies. And other times we step back from Creation, and encounter the world as an expression of God, of God’s radical oneness, of God’s love and compassion, of God’s mystery and awe. Many civilizations, cultures and religions have also sought to teach humanity that this should be its relationship to Creation; more often than not, that voice has been unheeded.

Were we to always take our stance in the mode of I-It, of mastery, or working without limits, surely our world will become uninhabitable for future generations. This attitude could lead to hedonism, or radical consumerism.

Were we to always take our stance in the mode of I-Thou, of Shabbat, of preservation, it would be hard, if not impossible to sustain humanity at nearly any level of what we would call advanced civilization. If one could sustain this level of awareness of the divine as experienced in nature, who would be willing to cut down a tree, let alone take the life of a living creature?

Neither extreme is sustainable, and no one advocates living according to one extreme or another. We seek synthesis. Therefore, we walk a tightrope, balancing each attitude in an effort to both cultivate a sense of awe and wonder for God’s Creation and at the same time to meet humanity’s materials and physical needs.

But humanity has not walked this tightrope well balanced between these two modes. For too long, we have leaned towards the side of mastery, of working, and living in the mode of I-It. Short term, economically focused, without forethought to sustainability or the needs of future generations. We see where this attitude has lead, and we see where we are heading if we don’t change course.

It is time for humanity to lean the other way: to fault on the side of Shabbat, stewardship, of preservation, and of standing in the world more with the mode of I-Thou.

We need to re-read the Torah’s narrative with this perspective in mind. Genesis 1 is close to the truth: we find ourselves in a universe that has been around far longer than we have. Genesis 2 lays out the balancing act we must do: doomed to stewardship. There is no escaping this role. Even Genesis 1 teaches that human dominion can only be stewardship, because we are not autonomous nor sovereign rulers in a world that is not ours. We either accept this or reject role, but we cannot ignore it. We have been entrusted with this world, and we are responsible to the Entruster, which if not God, are our great-great-great-grandchildren.

How are we even capable of managing the world?

How will we ever know enough to perform this task wisely? We have no choice but to try to do so. But to attempt to manage the world is hubris. We don’t need to manage the earth much as we need to manage ourselves, our stance, our attitude in the world.

This will call for our humility, restraint, and choosing different actions than we normally would choose. What can we do? We are just a small handful of people.

The great sage Rabbi Israel Salanter, said that he once thought he could change the entire world, but when that proved too difficult, he sought to change his community. When that proved too difficult, he sought to change his family. When even that proved beyond his capacity, he realized that he could only change himself. And we must begin with ourselves.

Throughout this year, we as a congregation are going to have many opportunities to examine these questions, to consider our attitudes, and to think about the choices that we make on a daily basis.

  • What will we eat?
  • What will we purchase?
  • How will we treat and use our resources?
  • Where will we travel?
  • How will we get there?
  • For what policies will we lobby our government for
  • What technologies and innovations will we embrace and which will we reject?

We always choose how we stand in the world. This year, and every year into the future, let us take our stance in the world and rise to our role as loyal stewards of God’s creation.

Rosh Hashanah 5776 – Hineini: Here I AM

(As an introduction to this sermon, we began with a simple chant of one word – Hineini/Here I am. The chant was also used at the conclusion as well. I learned this chant from Rabbi Simcha Zevit)

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Hineini. Here I am.”

“Then a messenger of the Eternal called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Hineini. Here I am.’”

Try this for a moment.

Imagine a compassionate teacher or a still, small voice inside you or an ever-flowing Creative Source that you can connect with were to ask “Where are you?” silently and supportively, what would be your honest response?

You might describe where you are spatially – where you are located at that moment, the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of the space where you are currently located.

You might notice your breath. Is it flowing calmly, or is there some pressure or stress causing your breathing to be shallow, uneven, or constricted? What are the thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel rushed, anxious, discouraged, agitated, or unfocused?

You might have answered the question with sarcasm: What’s it to you? Leave me alone. I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention. I’m hiding.

Yesterday, I spoke about three questions that lay at the heart of Musaf: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

When you heard: “Where are you?” you might come back to these three questions, to those stories that comprise our lives.

When Adam and Even heard this question for the first time, after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, they hid in the Garden. Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that:

“When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art Thou (Genesis 3:9). It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued; yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?” (God in Search of Man p. 137)

As Adam and Eve did, we continue to hear the question “Where are you?” And, also like Adam and Eve, we have the free will to to avoid or answer the question.

Today, I want to explore one possible answer to the question “Where are you?”, which is Hineini. Here I Am.

Many of our ancestors have responded to God with this answer: As we heard in this morning’s Torah reading, Abraham responds Hineini when God calls on him. Jacob responds to God’s call twice with Hineini. Joseph says it in response to his father’s call to check up on his brothers. Moses, at the burning bush, responds to God’s summons with Hineini. Samuel begins his career as a prophet with the response Hineini.

What do these have in common? Why is this the response that each of these people have in their unique situations?

Author of the book Here I Am Leonard Felder comments that:

…this three-syllable Hebrew word is one of the most interesting spiritual tools I’ve ever encountered. When you respond to life’s challenges, to God, or to your inner turmoil by saying, “Hineini. Here I am,” something positive stirs up inside you. Some specific parts of your brain, your body, and your soul come alive and feel energized with new clarity from announcing these words silently to yourself.

Felder is on to something here. Each of those individuals who answered Hineini was in a vulnerable place, facing a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Abraham says it at the beginning and at the end of the Binding of Isaac, the most challenging test of his life. Jacob utters Hineni during his trials with his brother Esav and deceitful uncle Lavan. Joseph, his father’s favorite among brothers who despise him, unwittingly says Hineini as he leaves his family for over two decades. Moses, the former royal prince living in a foreign land, responds with Hineini as he is about to begin the most important part of his life. Samuel, who is about the become the prophet of a stubborn and passionate people, says Hineini to God’s call in the Mishkan in Shilo.

Hineini. Here I am. Hineini is a courageous response to offer in the face of terrifying challenges and life-changing obstacles. As Felder suggests, it awakens these people – mind, body, and soul – with a life energy that enables them to endure the most difficult of times.

Let’s look at Abraham again from this morning’s Torah reading. “After these things…” At the very beginning of the Torah portion, Abraham is blessed with everything. He is married to Sarah, a passionate, strong woman, and they have a son, Isaac, a miracle child of their old age. They are living in the land that God promised to them. This is the fulfillment of the vision that God shared with Abraham in the land of Haran:

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

In a departure that completely severs Abraham from his past, Abraham leaves behind his extended family and his birthplace for the promise of a starting a whole new family (and ultimately a people) living in a new land. He sets off for the land with Sarah and his nephew Lot sight unseen and without a child. In fact, not even without a child, but with a wife who we are told is unable to bear children. This radical break from Abraham’s past is framed by a story that God shares with them, a story in which he and Sarah are in a covenant with God, a promise, a vision of a people living in their own land. And just when everything seems to be set for the future, God comes to Abraham with this test:

And God said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.”

In this one verse, with a huge emotional build up, God demands that Abraham, who has given us his past, must now give up his future, Isaac. Terrifying. Unthinkable. As Soren Kierkegaard calls it: the suspension of the ethical. Devastating. How can God ask this of him? What is God thinking?

But Abraham does not say Hineini to this command. Abraham already said Hineini before God even revealed the test. When God called out to Abraham, Abraham, without hesitation, said: Hineini. Here I am. Ready and willing to do whatever comes next. And after the command comes, there is nothing but immediate action on Abraham’s part. This is how strong Abraham’s faith is. This is a person whose identity, whose vision of the future, is not shaken even in this moment of absolute terror and this paradoxical command.

Three days later, they arrive at the mountain. Abraham and Isaac leave their two servants and the donkey at the foot of the mountain, and they head up the mountain, Abraham holding the knife and the tools for making the fire, and Isaac carrying the wood. All in agonizing silence.

At some point while going up the mountain, Isaac asks his father the a haunting question:

“Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?”

Abraham, without missing a beat, replies:

“God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.”

There are many ways to read this verse. Some understand that Abraham is lying to Isaac to keep him calm. Another reading that the Rabbis suggest is that Abraham subtly reveals to his son that he is going to be the offering. “God will see to the sheep for the offering: my son.” A third way to read it is that Abraham is neither lying nor hinting at a horrible possibility, but rather expressing his faith that God is simply not going to go through with this test. There is going to be a sheep up there. God will see to it. That is the strength of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s commitment to the vision expressed in the covenant cannot not be shaken by God’s command in the moment.

Given the faith that Abraham expresses, and what looks like Isaac’s cooperation in this test, what does God see on that mountain top in those next few moments?

In an essay about the Binding of Isaac, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that: God sees Abraham and Isaac together up on that mountain – mind, body and soul. Isaac bound on the altar and Abraham preparing for an unthinkable act. When God calls to them a second time, no matter how paradoxical the call may be, they respond together: Hineni. Here we are.

Rabbi Artson continues:

“Abraham has not denied the terror of this situation, neither to himself, nor to his son. He does not ignore the pain and the uncertainty of what he is ordered to do. At the same time, he demonstrates his trust. Abraham even said to the two servants that he and the boy would be back down the mountain later on. It was not a lie. It was a demonstration of faith.”

“What Abraham does not do is surrender to the pain and the fear of the situation. He refuses to allow the situation to undermine his identity as a Jew, as a member of the covenant with God.”

Abraham’s test is whether he will retain his confidence in God’s promised covenant, which has become his own core identity, or not.

Rabbi Artson:

“By refusing to abandon hope in the face of a bleak reality, by refusing to wish away a challenging reality in favor of simplistic beliefs and wishful stories, Abraham remains true to the brit, to the covenant.”

Everyday, we face this same test. In our abundant and sumptuous Western part of the world, in a world assaulted by terror, economic and political instability, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, poverty – including our city of Syracuse which is one of the most impoverished in our nation –  illness, hatred of all sorts, and violence, we are called to apprehend the reality of the threats facing us. We are called to confront the improbability of survival, of overcoming even one of these threats. We are called then to do the hard work necessary to transcend those odds.

We are tested with the same paradox as Abraham, as individuals, as families, as a community, as a people, and as human beings made in God’s image.

We are heirs to the a covenant of vision, that carries with it the promise of hope, equality, justice, love, and compassion. We are the transmitters of that promise. God has no hands but yours. God needs us to supply hands to do the work, the hearts to bear the love and the compassion, and the mouths to give voice to the promise, to articulate the vision, to voice the primal utterance of what the future should be.

Like Abraham and Isaac, we can say – we must say Hineini. Here we are.

With faith and commitment to Judaism, to its spiritual treasures, to its goals and aspirations, and to each other, and at the same time, recognizing the reality of our lives and of the demands that will take our combined effort, we can pass the test.

Imagine that your compassionate teacher or that still, small voice inside you or that ever-flowing Creative Source that you connect asking: “Where are you?” silently and supportively, in the face of challenges and obstacles, together we can say Hineini.

Rosh Hashanah 5776 – We Are Our Stories: A Framework for Musaf

My summer after third grade, my parents sent me to a Jewish summer camp called Olin Sang Ruby. That summer at camp was…mediocre. But there was one particular moment that summer that I will never forget. Late one night, I hopped down from my top-bunk to go to the bathroom. The bathroom building was in the middle of a semi-circle of bunks. As I came back to my bunk, it seemed that my bunk mate had taken my blanket. Leaning in to whisper so I would not wake anyone else, I said, “Hey, give me back my blanket.” My bunk mate stirred, but was still asleep. I tried to take it back gently while whispering again, “Hey, you took my blanket. Give it back.” Now partially wakened, he groggily said, “Who are you? It’s my blanket.” It is as that moment I realized…I was in the wrong bunk. I went back to my bunk, which was, of course, just one building over. At the end of that camp session, there was a campfire with campers sharing camp stories. After a few people shared their stories, one particular kid began his story: “It was the strangest thing. Late one night, this kid comes into my bunk and demands that I give him my blanket. Then he just left.” I said nothing. But I was aware that my small act of forgetting where I was helped to create a story for that other camper and for me.

Stories are what I want to focus on today. The imaginative capacity to tell stories is one of the most human things that we do. Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, writes that:

“At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story. We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.

Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV…. Through newspapers or television [or the internet], our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Human beings are story-tellers. From our fragments of memory, we seek patterns, look for meaning, and create stories. We do this to help us remember who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Booker and others have made claims there are only a small handful of basic stories, some say that there are five core stories, some say seven core, and they may be right, but there is also a uniquely Jewish set of core stories.

Several years ago, at a Jewish education conference, I learned about the centrality of stories in Jewish life from master Jewish story teller Joel Lurie Grishaver. If you have ever used the religious school book “The Shema is for Real” you have seen his groundbreaking work. He taught us that looking at the Hebrew Bible as THE Jewish framework, there are really only three types of stories: Creation stories. Redemption stories. And Revelation stories. Each core story is based on these three classic expressions of God’s actions in the world: The Creation of the Universe, our Redemption from Egyptian Slavery, and the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

These three core stories do capture so much of a person’s life. Everyone’s life has a beginning. Everyone’s life has moments of moving from narrowness to expansiveness. And everyone’s life contains moments of deep learning.

The Tanakh presents the three core stories, both on the cosmic scale, and on the human scale; on the family scale and the personal. Stories within stories within stories, like a huge fractal of narratives, where at every level you see the same pattern over and over again.

But the Tanakh continues with other stories. A Return to our ancestral land. Catastrophe and Exile when the Babylonians destroyed our sacred center. Exile and Return are the fourth and fifth Jewish core stories.

I was thinking this through with Cantor Pepperstone, and she thought of a sixth story. This past summer, while she was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva (with thanks to Harold and Joan Burstyn for providing a scholarship so that she could spend three weeks learning there this summer), in a class about Hasidut, they discussed the idea of Deveikut, which is a feeling of Oneness or deep harmony with God’s presence, particularly when doing mitzvot. Now, the list of Jewish core stories has reached six: Creation, Redemption, Revelation, Exile, Return, and Oneness.

Today, as we take this time to reflect on our lives over the past year and what they might be like in the coming year, I invite you to begin to think about where how these core stories fit into your life, or rather, how your life fits into these six core stories.

Creation Stories. Birth. Beginnings. New Starts. Radical breaks from the past. Each of us has a story about our first moments, our early years, the formative events that make us who we are. There are moments, events that set up the first legs of our journeys through life.

In the Torah’s first chapter, God took primordial stuff and shaped it into a universe, an amazing cosmos of tremendous magnitude and microcosms of powerful forces at the smallest levels of existence. Creation is the movement from chaos to order, of new light, of creating separations and structures.

In the siddur, we say on Shabbat morning that God is Mechadesh b’kohl yom tamid Ma’asei Breisheet – that God is the One who renews Creation on every day and at every moment.

Redemption Stories. Going out. Freedom. In the Torah, God sends Moses to take us out of Mitzrayim, which means the Narrow Place, into the Wilderness of Sinai. These are stories the movement from slavery to freedom, stories about overcoming oppression, about fighting injustice. Redemption stories are about moving from sweat shops to independent businesses, leaving bad situations; about leaving unhealthy workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, oppressive countries, about moving from any narrow confining place into a place of expansiveness.

We chant that verse from the psalm: Min ha-meitzar karati Yah. Anani va-merchav Yah! From the narrow-places I call out to Yah! Yah answered with spaciousness.

Revelation Stories. In the Torah, this is our standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and receiving the Revelation of the Torah, of God’s Oneness. These are stories about learning, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, of wisdom learned, of new understanding, of common sense. From whom do we learn? These are stories of mentors, teachers, parents, grandparents – who gave us knowledge, skills, ways of looking at the world, of understanding how the world works, who gave us vision, the ability to see not only what it, but what ought to be. These are stories about lighting up paths of darkness, to see where we ought to be headed.

We learn in the classic compilation of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot : Who is wise/Eizehu chacham? Ha-melamed mikol adam. The one who learns from every human being. As it is written: From all of my teachers, I have learned.

Exile Stories. In the Tanakh, this is represented by the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile of our people to foreign rule on foreign soil. These are stories of disconnect, of the movement from success to failure, of destruction, of loss. Stories of betrayal and rupture. These are about losing what is most sacred, what is most holy in our lives. Those moments of separation, endings, tears in our relationships, either past of present.

The book of Lamentations, chanted with the haunting melodies of trope for that book, opens with in image of Jerusalem in isolation: Eichah yashvah badad! How she sits alone!

Return Stories. In the Tanakh, there is an end to Exile, when under the new leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, we as a people returned to our land, to rebuild, to reconnect, to embrace again that which was lost for a time. Return stories are about homecoming, the movement from disconnect to connection, stories of making amends, repairing damage, of families reunited, reconnecting with people, places, words, ideas.

In the psalm sung before the Blessing after Meals on Shabbat, we sing: Be’shuv Adonai et shivat Tzion, hayinu ke’cholmim. When the Eternal brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.

Oneness Stories. In the Tanakh, in-between other kinds of moments that are changes from one state into another, there are also moments of oneness and stillness. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jacob’s family gathered around his deathbed. In moments of solidarity in the forty years in the Wilderness – in particular the building of the Mishkan, or when we stood on Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim and reaffirmed the Sinai covenant. These are stories of connection, of feeling part of something larger than one’s self. Stories about intense belonging, finding one’s place in the larger whole, of one’s personal purpose in alignment with a larger purpose, being part of the dynamic flow of life and the universe.

When the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary we had with us in the wilderness of Sinai, was complete, the Torah says that the Mishkan became Echad, One. All of the components had come together to form something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Our lives are a matrix of stories, a combination of all six kinds of these stories, stories within stories, some stories woven into larger ones, intersecting and diverging with the stories of others, friends, family, fellow human beings all over the world. At any given moment in time, we are beginning some stories, in the middle of others, and ending yet others.

On Rosh Hashanah, we can take time to look at our stories from a remote vantage point. In Psalm 27, the psalm recited from the beginning of Elul through Sukkot, we come across the phrase: “And now, God will raise up my head.” Rosh Hashanah raises us up out of our normal routine. God in love has given us the gift of time to look at our lives, to see what stories in our lives we are currently writing. During our Selichot event, when we watched the film Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, one character paraphrased a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Today, we have the opportunity to look at our lives backward in order to live forward, and that opportunity is Musaf. One way to understand Musaf is as a structured meditation on the stories of our lives. Once this D’var Torah is done, we will have the following tools at our disposal: The mahzor in our hands, with its rich tapestry of Hebrew, translations, commentary and thematic readings. Cantor Pepperstone’s davening guiding us through the mahzor. This framework for understanding Musaf. Our hearts and minds to help us examine our lives, our stories that make up our self-understanding. The gift of time this holiday to do this sacred work.

Musaf asks us three questions:

Malkhuyot – Kingship: Who am I?

Zichronot – Remembrances: Where do I come from?

Shofarot – Shofar Blasts: Where am I going?

Malkhuyot. Kingship. The essential question of Maklkhuyot is: Who am I? The idea of God as King presents many of us, myself included, with a challenge. However, this is a poetic metaphor that begs to be unpacked. If so, what does the metaphor of God as King mean? My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager suggests that King/Melekh conveys the idea of the Source of all being and power. When we hear the language of “king” and “kingship,” we are invited to consider the Source of all that is, and our place in relation to that Source.

In the Garden of Eden, right after Eve and Adam eat from that fruit that gives them expansed human consciousness, a radical awareness of their place in the universe, God asks them a simple but profound question: Ayeka? Where are you? This is one way to focus during Malkhuyot – on our individual and communal present.

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What is my relationship to myself, my family, my community, my people, Israel, the larger world, and to God?
  • Where am I in this web of relationships today?
  • What is the context of my life where I find myself today?

We never stand here isolated, completely independent. We might deny some or all of this complex web of relationships, but it is there all the same.

Who are you?

Zikhronot. Remembrances. The essential question of Zikhronot is: Where do I come from? During Zichronot, the mahzor includes verses that touch on some key moments in the life of our people that bring us to this moment. Zikhronot invites us to look back at our personal stories that brought each of us to this moment. What memories or fragments do we select to create our inner stories, and the stories of our families? What stories have we heard about ourselves? What stories do we tell about ourselves? How do those stories shape our self-understanding? Are they negative stories or positive stories? Should we keep them or abandon them?

Our Creation stories shape our earliest days. Our Redemption stories illuminate moments of leaving, upheaval and development. Our Revelation stories take us back to our parents, our teachers and our mentors – to moments of wisdom and insight. Our Exile stories take us back to moments of rupture and loss. Our Return stories remind us of those moments of homecoming and healing. Our Oneness stories highlight moments of connection and harmony.

  • What are the stories that have brought us to this moment?
  • Where do we come from?

Shofarot. Blasts of the Ram’s Horn. If Malkhuyot invites an examination of the present, and Zikhronot invites an examination of the past, then Shofarot takes us in two directions at once – the past and to the future.

We are taken back to our people’s core moment of Revelation – Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. At the same time, that same Revelation gives us a glimpse of the future, of a distant messianic horizon that shows us where should be heading and where we ought to be heading. On the horizon, we see new beginnings or new endings, future redemption or future enslavement, moments of insight or moments of forgetting, moments of harmony and connection or moments of rupture and disconnect, and moments of distance or moments of return.

The past and future are combined here because it is in those moments of Revelation from our past that we see the path forward. Those moments of divine insight take us from “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” to “Where am I going? How will we get there?”

The blast of the shofar wakes us from the heads-down burden of the present AND from the mesmerizing reveries of the past and says, “Hey! Where are you going with this life?”

We are both the characters and the co-authors of our stories that we create and inhabit.

  • Some of our stories are all in the past. We must learn from them.
  • Some of our stories are just starting. We can either embrace or reject our role in them.
  • Some stories we find ourselves in the middle of. We must remember that the choices we make shape the narrative as it is lived out day by day.

Shofarot points to the future, reminding that we should move into the future with our path lit by moments of revelation. What will this year bring us? What stories will begin, develop and end this year? At every turn, what choices will we make? What will illuminate our path?

Who are we?

Where do we come from?

Where are we going?

Shanah Tovah.

Parshat Re’eh with Guest Darshan Tiferent Zimmern-Kahn

My grandfather’s first yahretziet was the 25th of Av—5 days ago. He lived fully and healthfully to the age of 92 and died after only a handful of days in the hospital.

Grandpa was from Czechoslovakia, and met my grandmother at a dance in London on furlough from the Czech army in 1942. They were separated for a number of years and wrote letters back and forth as my grandfather learned English. My grandparents saved these letters, and my grandmother recently reported deriving much joy from reading them through again, reliving the kindling of their love so long ago. In 1947 they were married—him Ashkenazi, my grandmother from a Sephardic family, and remained married for 67 and a half years. They eventually made aliyah, and he passed away and is buried in Israel.

Grandpa was a kohen, and took his duties as a kohen to his community seriously. Living in Israel, he duchenned (performed the priestly blessing) every Shabbat, would often lead shacharit or musaf and was lauded for his lyrical voice. He was proud of this position in the community. My grandfather had a few jokes he liked to tell. One of them, recounted at my brother’s wedding, goes as follows: Why is a kohen so short tempered? They wash their hands, get nothing to eat, and besides, they have to worry about someone stealing their shoes! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it, I’m not sure I do either…)

My grandfather believed firmly in upholding Jewish tradition from keeping kosher and Shabbat, to supporting others in his community who needed assistance, be it financially or otherwise. He had a strong moral character amongst family, friends, and business partners. As his grandchildren, we were told about how Grandpa would always sincerely thank Grandma for a meal, even if all it was was a boiled egg. He recognized his place in the family. He would say: “I am the head of the family, but your grandmother is the neck. The head goes wherever the neck turns.”

All of his grandchildren flew in from abroad to put him to rest. My father and uncle both took leadership roles in the congregation, as mourners are encouraged to do. Parshat Re’eh, this week’s parsha, was read the first Shabbat after my grandfather’s funeral. My father recited the haftarah after a hiatus of many years from layning. His death was unexpected in some ways, coming so suddenly, but also expected, seeing as he was an old man. We came together as a family to do what we could to follow in his footsteps and do it right. My cousins who got married this past year both formed their chuppot from Grandpa’s talit. Our actions remember him and will continue to do so.

I was asked to speak today especially about Jewish environmental concepts, so I’ll leave my memories of Grandpa for the time being, and oblige.

I grew up in a traditional family outside of Boston, and I loved nature—oxymoronic? Maybe… However, it was difficult to find a suitable outlet for this interest. There weren’t many organized hiking trips or environmental programs I could comfortably participate in as an observant Jew. So I was interested to learn of the growing Jewish environmental movement as I was getting ready to finish college. Since graduating, I’ve worked as a Jewish environmental educator at Surprise Lake Camp, the Teva Learning Alliance, and the Pearlstone Center’s educational farm outside Baltimore, MD. I continue to be connected to this community through attending conferences, visiting friends and reading blog posts. My training in these communities serves as a backbone for my teaching today: I focus on hands-on experiential lessons, and getting my students outside whenever possible.

To this end, in 2013, a friend (Ris Golden-Sieradski) and I co-founded the Syracuse Jewish Community Garden. It’s meant to provide a space for hands-on Jewish environmental and agricultural education for Jewish students (both adult and youth) in Syracuse. Most of the food we grow is donated to local family shelters, emphasizing our tradition’s commitment to social justice and caring for those in need.

A garden is a space where children and adults can come into contact with many different pieces of nature, and heighten our awareness of the kinds of relationships humans have had with plants and animals over the centuries. Adding a Jewish element to the programming connects us even more deeply to an identity we’ve held dear throughout our lives. To confine one’s Jewish identity to the synagogue is a disservice (no offense). By relating to nature as Jews, we deepen our relationship to both elements: Judaism and nature.

Since first identifying as a Jewish environmental educator eight years ago, the basics of how Judaism asks us to cultivate a meaningful and deep relationship with nature feel seamlessly integrated into my own personal practices.

The first couple of chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation, positioning the human “L’ovdah u’leshomrah” to work and to serve creation. We are here not to dominate, not to control and not to take advantage, but to care for and to tend.

The rabbis’ recommendation of saying one hundred blessings a day brings us into a relationship of awareness with creation that cultivates awe and gratitude.

The concept of “Bal Tashchit,” which has come to mean, “don’t wantonly destroy or waste” reminds us to be mindful of the resources we use and not to needlessly waste.

There are certainly other concepts that have shaped my Jewish practice to embody environmental values (for example, the agricultural connection of the holidays, celebrating Tu Bishvat, and Shmita, the implications of which I’m still striving to understand). However, these days, I’m feeling more interested in something a little deeper and a little broader.

Aside from being a Jewish environmental educator, I also teach science in the secular world. One of the goals that motivate me in this work is to heal the divide between “humanity” and “nature.” Much of the destruction we witness in and enact on the natural world originates with the false dichotomy between “us–humans” and “it—nature.” I’ve been guilty of reinforcing that dichotomy through the language I’ve used thus far in this drash. It’s taken me a while to find new language to express my ideas.

Rabbi David Seidenberg, in his recent book, Kabbalah & Ecology asks: can we make the claim that other (non-human) life is made in God’s image? Answering this question propels us toward finding the Jewish foundation for seeing ourselves as PART of creation, rather than APART FROM it. Seidenberg consistently uses the phrase “more-than human world,” explained in a footnote to “uproot the culture/Nature dichotomy…[It] includes the human—conceptualizing the environment that surrounds us as inclusive of humanity. It not only embraces a world that is both immanent and intimately related to us, but also acknowledges that this world transcends our needs, purposes, and knowledge.” This subtle redefining of terms can create a powerful paradigm shift.

Seidenberg presents a reading of traditional texts that reveals the Jewish teachings of how to live with the earth, offering us a way of relating to the More-Than Human World in order to sustain life. If we follow God’s commandments we will be able to live harmoniously, sustaining life on the planet in general. Parshat Re’eh details the ways the Israelites should live when they finally enter the land of Israel. We are instructed to live a spiritually sustaining life, close to God’s commandments and guidance, keep Kosher, and observe shmita every seventh year to release each other from debts and the land from our labor. Doing so, we will be rewarded with abundant sustenance, both physically and spiritually. However, the parsha also lays out the alternative: if we choose to commit adultery, follow false prophets, or ignore God’s commandments, we will be punished with a life of scarcity and struggle.

Traditional views of this parsha present God as a supernatural force that will cause it to rain when we’ve brought enough sacrifices or when we keep Kosher properly. The same force will deny us rain if we worship idols. This isn’t really the way I like to think about God—as a possessive and jealous force that I’m able to anger or please based on my actions and choices.

However, Seidenberg (and others) brings a different reading to this text. Not following God’s commandments about how to live well on the land will bring about a natural consequence of struggling. By ignoring the guidelines, we will be living a life alienated from the land, from ourselves, and ultimately from God. It’s a subtle twist, but to me, makes these ideas more palatable.

To tease this out a little more, let’s look to the laws of Kashrut as an example. In Re’eh, God outlines the animals we are allowed to eat and are not allowed to eat. We may only eat animals that have split hooves, as well as chew their cud. All animals that only possess one or the other or neither are “unclean” for us. How can we understand that following these laws has a natural consequence of living harmoniously with the land, and is not just obeying God’s seemingly random whim?

Seidenberg gives a fascinating explanation. An animal that chews its cud: what does this imply? It derives its sustenance from grasses, something that we as humans are not designed to do. What does cloven feet imply? These are animals that thrive on rocky slopes—land that is near impossible to cultivate. By limiting our domesticated flocks to animals who both chew their cud and have cloven hooves, we are ensuring that they are neither competing with us for a food source, nor with our crops for space. This choice will make it easier for us to sustain ourselves on the land, leading to more abundance than if we were to raise pigs, for example. As a student of ecology and a farmer, this makes sense to me.

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Dr. Robin Kimmerer (of SUNY-ESF) asks similar questions of how to heal our relationship with the more-than human world. As an ecologist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, she draws out answers from her own native traditions as well as western scientific knowledge and methodology. Her writing is exquisite and many of her essays have moved me to the brink of tears. In one essay, Kimmerer describes her realization that as much as she loves the earth, the earth must love her back. She writes, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

There is so much that needs to happen to shift the course of environmentally destructive policies and practices toward more sustainable ones. However, I am not one to advocate for social change on Shabbat. Today is a day to stop, and enjoy Creation without trying to change it or make improvements. It’s an exercise in awareness of all the “Tov Me’od—very good” that God beheld at the culmination of the creation of the world.

But, perhaps we can craft an appropriate Shabbat practice toward healing our relationship with the more than human world. How can we better see ourselves as part OF creation, instead of apart FROM? What might it be like to interact with a tree the same way you would interact with a friend? After coming home from a long day at work, running to embrace the first friend in your path, a maple tree that’s always stood tall and strong in your front yard right near the drive way. Or, to give the same attention to a hawk flying overhead as you would to receiving a new email or text message.

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument. I left his car crying and feeling hurt, and he angrily drove away. That was the last time I saw him and the last time I heard his voice. We did exchange a few emails. He apologized, I forgave him, and I apologized too. Then about four months later, my cousin told me of his sudden decline.

Noticing mistakes and claiming them goes a long way in strengthening relationships, which are not always easy. In fact, the most intimate ones usually withstand the most hardship and challenge. It is this willingness to engage and get through the difficult times, which builds the intimacy that comes to be so ultimately rewarding. Healing our relationship with the more than human world will certainly challenge our culture and our way of life. But, hopefully, in so doing, it will strengthen our relationship to what we call nature, to what we call God and ultimately to ourselves, and in the process making our lives more whole.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Va’etchanan: Guest Darshan Tony Kennison-Adams

Sometimes one has to really dig into a parsha to get a few thoughts on which to write a d’var. This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, does not need such digging; this parsha is an abundance of riches. It contains Moses’ narrative covering the freedom from slavery, the journey through the wilderness the provision of God and the pleading of Moses to God for God to change Gods decision stopping him from entering the promised land. It recaps the Decalogue and contains the shema.

Not wishing to outstay my welcome with a three-hour d’var, I will reserve my comments to a mini-study on the leadership style and behaviors of Moses with a view to understanding if this is a model of leadership that we can emulate as Jewish leaders today.

So why is this important to us sitting here? Primarily because, each one of us has a role in Jewish leadership. Be that in a formal leadership role in the shul, in work, as a parent, a teacher, a partner, or as part of a community raising our children together. Also, we are looked at by those outside of our community as different as a community within a community. People look to us for a lead. I remember some words that Sid gave in the introduction to his Bar Mitzvah Haftarah about our responsibility never to do anything that reflected badly on the Jewish community. Others are looking to us by reputation, as leaders or just as fellow travelers. One of the most import aspects of Moses’ leadership for me was not the grandiose miracles or earth shattering words, but his flawed humanity. This is an important lesson for us to be effective leaders; we do not need to be eternal or omnipotent, just human. We bring whatever we are into our leadership behaviors with us. But knowing that, makes us more effective than those who think they stand head and shoulders above the masses due to power or qualification.

So what human behaviors did Moses bring to his leadership? Moses railed against the people that it was their fault that he would never enter Canaan, when we know it was clearly Moses’ disobedience before God that was the bar to Moses inheriting the land. Was this Moses’ pride, regret, realization of a lack of faith or just a need to transfer his blame to others? Whether we feel sorry for him, believe it was just desserts or that he received his own reward in leadership or the manner of his passing, Moses’ folly is actually a demonstration of his humanity and like him we bring our weaknesses, frustrations, and inadequacies to our leadership rolls. Thus we should not be condemned by our humanity but encouraged by it.

It is often said that the role of leadership is to set the vision and remove the barriers. Moses certainly had the vision from the moment of the burning bush and he went on to remove the barriers of slavery of Pharaoh, the sea of reeds, bread, water, meat and so much more. But what kind of a person carries through such a mission when they know they will not inherit the vision, when they are going to put in thirty-eight years of effort and get no reward for their efforts. How many of us would start a physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual journey if the prize was thirty-eight years of kvetching and then being refused entrance to the winner’s enclosure. But such was the measure of the leader in Moses. He saw the vision and he removed the barriers. Much like the generations of leaders who eventually brought about the modern state of Israel. Their vision took two thousand years and, though there are still barriers to the complete peace and security of Jerusalem, leadership has brought Israel into reality. There is much in common with our wanderings in the wilderness here.

Moses however was not just a leader with a vision, but more importantly he was a follower. A follower of the leader Hashem. All great leaders understand the importance of being followers, of being under authority, because they understand the relationship that they have as a follower to their leader. A great example to this was when Moses acceded to the requests of the elders for him to appoint judges over the mass of Beit Yisrael. He could not be a judge alone. His followers came to him, he acknowledged the need and delegated authority to his followers to in turn be leaders. Followers have great ideas; they can be creative, insightful, and decisive but can only flourish and feel that they can contribute if the leader provides an environment in which they feel safe and valued. As leaders our role is not command and control, but climate control. We do not have to command and control followers, we have to control a climate in which followers will come forward, will risk, will experiment and will safe to do so. As leaders today we must not forget that we are still followers, we follow Torah, we align our lives with Torah precepts, instructions and commands. But we also put ourselves under the authority of others when it is for our good, the good of the community, our families, or even our children when they in turn are in a place where they become leaders. So to be an authentic Jewish Leader, we should first become an authentic follower, then nurture those who choose to follow us. This was what Moses did for Joshua, he gave Joshua the responsibility to spy out the land and in return he nurtured him to maturity and did what all leaders should do and that is to do themselves out of a job.

Moses in pleading with God to put aside God’s previous judgement banning him from entry to Canaan also was putting aside a key lesson that leaders must remember, and stick to, and that is that actions have consequences. In his pleading Moses was asking God to put aside the consequences of Moses’ disobedience to speak to the rock, but God knew that removing the consequence would not help Moses. One of the earliest leadership lessons in Breisheet is when God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden because they had disobeyed God’s simple instruction: don’t touch the fruit of that tree. Eat anything else but not that one.

Having worked a lot with young people, I have seen a trend that many who find themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble are those who consistently did not have to live with the consequences of there actions. Parents who had turned a blind eye to bad behavior, given a second, third, forth chance without consequence. Paid the fine for speeding, and still not held a son to account. Youth given a third, fourth or fifth caution that then learn to laugh at authority, until a judge eventually sends the kid to jail. As leaders we have to realize that our actions have consequences but that we too must hold those whom we ‘lead’ to account. Not just because of a rule but to promote growth and nurturing which is a key responsibility of leadership. If Hashem had said to Moses, “Ok I give up you can go to Canaan,” what would have been the effect on Israel? They would have thought that they had cart blanche to do whatever they wanted. If that had been so, would we be here today, or worshipping at a temple in front of a huge golden cow?

Actions not only have consequences but those consequences can have a ripple effect through time.

I was once told that if I wanted to know what kind of leader I was, I should turn around and see who is following me. The people followed Moses for forty years, they didn’t turn back, they didn’t go their own way. They followed Moses to the point of his death and then mourned the one whom they had loved. But they quickly got on with their lives and turned to the new leader, Joshua, and followed him into Canaan. Moses knew that the people would have to cope without him. The loss of the leader needs to be like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water, there are a few ripples but soon all is calm again. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said great leadership happens “ when the people say at the end of the task we did this ourselves.” The leader is not there for her glory but for the enrichment of the led, the followers.

As Jews, the Rabbis tell us not to seek leadership roles, but if we are called that, we serve with our whole being. But when the people elect one to leadership, that does not mean that one is in for an easy ride. The very person who casts their lot for the leader becomes the greatest critic when something does not go their way. Yes the people followed Moses out of Egypt but they were very soon were cursing Moses who had ‘led them to die in the dessert.” I often think that, to use animal analogies that a leader needs the courage of a lion, the cunning of a fox, the caring of a kangaroo, and the hide of a rhinoceros. But also they need those around them whom they can trust to keep them grounded. Moses was well grounded by Aaron, Miriam and others of his family. He was loved and even revered by them, but they still criticized him when they thought he was wrong such as with his marriage to “that Cushite woman.”

Having trusted advisors to help through leadership situations is vital, a partner, a friend, a teacher, someone that we can trust and keep us grounded. Moses had the benefit of walking with Hashem in a very physical sense. We have to strive for the same through our relationships with those made in Hashem’s image.

We must also not put on heirs and graces and flaunt our power as leaders, look what happened to Uriah as a result of a leader, King David, when he grew too big for his boots. Golda Mier, was never so grand as Prime Minister not to wash her own dishes. She wrote in her biography about a time when after a very long day she had had a large dinner in her private apartment with leading dignitaries. The hour was late when they left, but because her cleaner was coming in the morning she washed all the dishes and did the hoovering so as not to make the cleaner start off with a mountain of work for her day. This nor only speaks to the fact that Golda remembered where she had come from but even in the grand position of Prime Minister she remembered to look after even the lady who came to clean her bathroom.

We are part of a continuum of followers and leaders. We are just human even as Moses was just human, we are flawed, just as Moses was flawed, but that does not mean we should not step up to the challenge of making a difference as Jewish leadership. We must continue to have vision and remove barriers for ourselves and others as we lead and follow to our own Canaan.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat Devarim: Guest Darshan Jeanette Powell

This week we read Parshat Devarim. This evening we begin the observance of Tisha B’Av. Devarim is always read prior to the observance of Tisha B’Av. Both the Parashah and Tisha B’av call on us to remember our history. Devarim recalls the challenges of the Exodus and our time in the wilderness. Tisha B’Av calls on us to remember the destruction of our temples, our sorrows, tragedies and persecutions suffered through the years.

Both Tisha B’av and Devarim, each in different ways, remind us that we have choices to make when tragedy strikes. It is good to grieve, to give ourselves the time we need to cope and to feel our sorrow. That is when we need our loving community. Our friends provide support and hopefully good listening. They help us process what has happened and help us to give a tragedy some meaning or learning in our lives. At some point however, we face the difficult task of finding ways to put something positive and some action in place of that sorrow. We want our lives to go on without so much pain. We have to do this while we continue to remember and integrate our sorrow in more positive ways. If we are to choose life, we need take action to make that transition. This weekend provides us with a challenge to look at our lives and see if we are carrying too much sorrow that we need to transform in some way. Are we doing this as individuals, or are we contributing to a communal sorrow that has gone on too long?

How can transformation happen?

Often it takes a long time and, just as we need our friends and community to help us do that as individuals, we also need to remember that our community needs us when as a community we are attacked or persecuted in any way. We have read in the national news of different tragedies in the last few weeks and how people of all faiths assembled to help those in sorrow. Although those were not Jewish tragedies, they are a part of our American community. To the people in Charleston and the people in Chattanooga, loving-kindness and support has been abundant and helpful to those who are suffering. It will help them find the peace that they need to transition out of such deep sorrow to build up their lives once again.

How does looking at our world right now relate to our observance of Tisha B’Av and to our reading of Devarim?

We are seeing an abundance of hate of different groups or persons by different religious representatives. The tragedy in Charleston did not provoke the same kind of rebuke to Christians that the tragedy in Chattanooga did for Muslims. The murders were followed by a series of black churches being torched. In spite of being reviled by a Christian preacher because of the Chattanooga shootings, Muslims then came together to raise large amounts of money for the rebuilding of the burned black churches. Why does our hatred and bigotry spill out and paint entire groups for the actions of one person?

Devarim is the first chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. The Parashah contains the beginning of Moses’ first farewell address. Devarim means words. I want to urge us this weekend to focus on our words. Our Rabbi and our community leaders have been concerned that we foster respectful dialogue within our synagogue. It is incredibly important in so many ways that we listen to each other and respect each other without the necessity of having to agree with one another.

Moses words are directed to the immediate people he has led for so many years. In recounting the history of the Exodus, Moses is rebuking the people for their many mistakes and is urging them to accept responsibility and follow God’s law. The people are about to enter the Promised Land and Moses wants them to be ready. He does not want them repeating their mistakes that would have devastating consequences.

As we mourn the past and read of Moses concerns, let us examine whether or not we have left God out of our lives. Have we lost the sense of awe and gratitude for what we have? Have we allowed the hate and bigotry that we see each day in the press and in our electronic mail to influence how we feel about others? Can we mourn this bad influence and at the same time resolve to our part to counteract these kinds of hate? What does it take to find the courage to contribute to change? It does take courage when we often find a nasty or sarcastic response to voicing what we believe.

Rabbi Paul Citrin tells us, “Moses does not dwell only upon the people’s shortcomings. He is proud of their enlarged numbers and publicly prays that God increase them a thousand-fold. We are thus reminded that warnings and chastisements can have productive results when those who are to hear are first assured of their innate worth. Even as little as one sentence of affirmation by a parent, a teacher, or a leader can lift a head and strengthen resolve.”

Rabbi Citrin goes on to say, “Devarim, ‘words,’ are our share in the divine power to create or to devastate. With words we shape reality, construct meaning, and frame hope.” Heschel reminds us, “We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments.” (Man’s Quest for God, A.J. Heschel, p. 25) Sefer Devarim calls us to be ever mindful of the words we shape that, in turn, shape our world.

Yesterday, I read the incredible speech of Reuvin Rivlin, President of Israel. He is involved in bringing various religious factions together amidst gross lack of respect between different groups regarding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Israel.

Previously, the president’s office stated that the event’s goal was to “bring together the communities of the Jewish people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and of learning and studying, to discuss the importance of Jewish unity and the need to work together to build understanding and respect.”

“This Talmudic proclamation must be considered fully. Does the Torah in Deuteronomy (16:20) not say, ‘Justice, Justice shall you pursue.’ Did Isaiah (1:27) not prophesy, ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice’? Are not law and order foundations upon which the world stands? Yes, the world does stand upon justice and the law, though not upon them alone. The judicial system is vitally important to the building of a just society. It enables contracts and agreements to be made. The law enables cooperation and partnership. Trust. It is the vital contract for the building of society. Yet, society cannot exist without moral and ethical accepted norms, components of mutual trust and unity.”

We need to learn, not how to agree with each other but how to disagree with each other. We must disagree with each other with respect, fairness, with firmness, but without foregoing the other persons’ Jewish identity. We cannot predetermine that one opinion or another has no right to exist within contemporary Jewish discourse. Rabbinic Judaism, which was founded in Yavneh following the destruction of the Temple, witnessed firsthand the horrific danger of sectarianism. Thus the Rabbis understood that social and faith-based conflicts, important as they may be, cannot be decided by a total negation of the other. The greatness of the Torah teachings and learning of Yavneh became a major part in our common Judaism through its ability to turn debate itself into part of the core of Jewish law. The Jewish cultural debate does not erase the words of the minority or the opposing side-but gives it a place within the canon itself.

While we cannot always control what others do to us, we can control our reactions. We can learn from whatever mistakes we may have committed. In the midst of our grieving over the many sorrows we have endured we might also look at some great victories. As a people we have established a State. As a percentage of the general population we are high achievers. We have found the courage to act. We often act in spite of our fear. As long as we listen with respect, and see the divine in the other, even if their ideas are opposite to us, we can maintain unity as a Jewish people. Let us make over our mourning into our mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Matot-Masei: Getting our Priorities Straight

I used to think that getting married was the single biggest change to someone’s social life. Once you were married, things would never be the same. You couldn’t make big decisions without consulting your partner-in-life. I used to think that…until I had children. Now I think that having children is a more substantial change to one’s life. Nothing is the same once you have children. Being responsible for the life of a person who is powerless to help themselves is an awesome responsibility, and that responsibility influences one’s priorities and the choices one makes in life. Or at least, they should be which brings us to this week’s double Torah portion.

Parshat Matot-Masei describes the final days at the end of the Israel’s forty years of wandering. The generation of slaves who left Egypt has all died. A people who emerged from Egypt as a ragtag bunch of escaped slaves has transformed into a strong and powerful nation. To illustrate that point, the beginning of Matot (which means “tribes”), describes a war of revenge on the Midianites, who had previously vexed Israel. The tribes quickly muster a military force of 12,000(!) troops, led by Pinchas the  Priest, Aharon’s grandson, and accompanied by the holy vessels from the Mishkan and the silver trumpets. The entire narrative of the war is over in two verses.  Two verses. This is a nation that can handle itself in times of war. (The remainder of the issues about this war center on how compassionate the troops should have been towards their female captives.) But how do they handle life after the war?

After the battle is over, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh notice that the land in which they are encamped is perfect for their needs as cattle farmers. So they ask Moshe a question:

“The land that God has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us, if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Bamidbar 32:4-5)

At first glance, the request seems reasonable. That piece of land has been conquered, and would be an ideal resource for their livelihood. What is more, this would leave far more land for the remaining tribes to divide among themselves! Is this not a generous offer? Of course it is! It’s a win-win.

But look at the request again, as Moshe does.

Are they suggesting that they would not cross the Jordan ever? What about the conquest of the land that lays ahead of them? What about the Sinai covenant? Will they not come to the Mishkan for national festivals? Are they turning their backs on God? On the people? Moshe lays all of this at their feet, and add one final psychological concern: “[The spies who brought the bad report about the land] turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that God had given them.” In other words, if even one tribe does not cross the Jordan, none of the others will either. History has borne this out in the past. This “generous” request has problematic implications for the entire nation.

As it turns out, this is not their actual intention at all! Immediately that tribe steps up and offer themselves as shock troops for the coming conquest of the land. But first they would like to “build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Bamidbar 32:16) Excellent! No problem. They just want to settle down first and then join the Israelite army, coming back home after the war is over. Moshe accepts these terms, and makes them vow to uphold their end of the bargain. But then he concludes with slightly different but crucially different language:

“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Bamidbar 32:24)

The tribal leaders mentioned the sheep before the children; Moshe mentions the children before the sheep. Why does Moshe switch the order in which these tribes will settle down?

Moshe understands that these tribes have their priorities in the wrong order. What drove the initial request of this tribe was the allure of land, cattle, what we would call a career. They put their career before their families. At first. we thought that they were only putting career before their national allegiance, which would have been a serious enough issue. The truth was actually far more problematic than that. It was career before families. Their families were going to stay in their temporary tents until they had built the sheepfolds.

Moshe, having regained confidence in their national commitment, gently reminds them that as important, if not more important, than career is their commitment to their families. They must settle their families before they can do anything for their careers, in this case, their animals. These tribes understood Moshe’s message:

“Your servants will do as my Lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead, while your servants, all those recruited for war, cross over…to engage in battle…” (Bamidbar 32:26-27)

So too this is with us! How often do we make decisions that put career before family? Does that promotion mean more money at the expense of being with family? Is less time with family worth money? This week’s Torah portion asks us to consider how we balance work and family. Which do we put first? How do we make those decisions? Each situation being different, Moshe reminds us that we need to put the needs of our family front and center when we make decisions about our work.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone


  1. Talk about how your work impacts your family, both in positive and negative ways. Discuss the balance between devoting one’s self to work and one’s self to family. How can putting in too much energy affect the other? How can putting in less energy into one affect the other?


  1. If a man makes a vow, can he get out of it or not?
  2. If a woman makes a vow, what are some ways that she is allowed to get out of that vow?
  3. How does Israel assembly its army to go to war against Midian?
  4. What is the connection between the war against Midian and last week’s Torah portion?
  5. What does Israel do with the spoils of war from the campaign against Midian?
  6. Which tribes want to live in the lands east of the Jordan?
  7. What are the problems with those tribes living east of the Jordan?
  8. What do those tribes promise to do for the nation of Israel?
  9. Find all of the locations where Israel camped during their forty years of wandering.
  10. What are the borders of the land of Israel, according to Bamidbar 34?
  11. How will Israel divide up the land among the twelve tribes?
  12. What is a city of refuge? Who can go there to get protection?
  13. Earlier in the Torah, the daughters of Tzelophchad change the laws of inheritance to inherit their father’s property (they have no brothers). What is the new limitation imposed upon on them at the end of Massei?

Parshat Hukkat: The Staff of Moses – A Tale of Connect and Disconnect

[Note: This bibliodramatic monologue is inspired by the work of Peter Pitzele, author of Scripture Windows, and the Torah commentary of Aviva Zornberg, author of Bewilderments, who presents classic and chassidic commentaries to the Torah in stunning and innovative ways. I am grateful for all that they have taught me.]


There are a infinite number of stories in the Torah. There are the stories that we see in the written scroll on the surface. There are the stories that dwell just beneath the surface. There are also the silent stories, such as the stories of a object or an animal, but when we give voice to those stories, we reveal another facet of Torah. “What if…” is one of the best questions to help open up the Torah to learn more about ourselves, even in the voice of something a ignored as Moses’ staff. What if Moses’ staff could tell it’s story?

My final act in Moses’ hands was one of anger and violence. Everyone stood and watched as he took me in his hands, hurled angry insults at the people, who were just thirsty and scared. I felt the rough surface of the rock as I smashed into it. The tiny imperfections of the rock made dents in my soft wooden surface; small pieces of me where chipped away. Then a pause. Then a second blow to the rock, harder than the first, even angrier than the first time.

Then the water flowed from the rock, and everyone drank and watered their animals. But I knew that something broke in that moment. I had been abused, misused, and and remained solely as a reminder of destruction.

But I did not begin that way.

Years before, I was part a staff, I was part of something larger than myself, an acacia tree, one branch of strong tree that provided support for leaves, and shade for travelers and shepherds. I don’t recall feeling separate from the tree, just feeling of being ‘tree.’ Day after day, a man came with his flock and sat under my shade. After I don’t know how long, the man came again, but instead of sitting beneath me as he had for all of those days, he brought a small axe and removed me from my tree. I was born through an act of unintended violence and disconnect.

In his hands, my role changed and expanded. Where once I merely provided shade, now I provided leadership and guidance. Yes, it was just for a flock of goats and sheep, but still it was leadership. I was used to keep the flock together, fend off thieves, wild animals, keep track of our numbers, and to help Moses walk at every step. I supported him.

After sometime, we moved our flock to another remote part of the wilderness. After we sat down at the foot of a small mountain, one of the younger sheep, who had been separated from his mother, wandered off, confused, up the mountain. Naturally, Moses and I immediately trailed after it. Once we caught up to the lamb, we found ourselves about halfway up the mountain in a small resting place.

We sat under the shade of an outcropping of rock, waiting to cool off from the heat of the chase. Moses hand rested gently on me. All of a sudden, without warning, his grip became firm, and he leapt to his feet. Around the corner, a small shrub had been on fire, which happens from time to time in the wilderness. No big deal. Then, without warning, Moses sticks me into the middle of the blazing fire. I felt the heat on me, but it was not like any other fire I had encountered before. I was prepared to burst into flames, but it was a radiant beautiful heat. No fire. No burn. No black marks on me.

What happened next I still cannot fully understand. While Moses seemed to be in conversation with the shrub, I was overcome with this feeling like I was back on my tree but more so, like I was connected to the tree, and the ground, and to everything. It was like being a branch on a tree again, but a tree far larger than anything I had known or ever heard of.

The next thing you know, I have been flung to the ground, and turned into a snake! How did that happen?! I still have no idea. I remember that Moses jumped back from me in fear. His fear was not a new emotion for me. I had felt it before, but never directed at me. I wanted to call out, “Moses, it’s just me!” Slowly, he reached out his hand, grabbed hold of my “tail,” and I became myself again. But now, I felt not only that same sense of connection, but now I felt that I had been noticed, that I had a role to play in something larger than taking care of a flock of sheep. But it was not a role that I necessarily wanted to play.

When Moses confronted Pharaoh, he flung me down again to the ground, and I could feel my dead wooden cells transform into the cells of a snake. The next thing I know it, I am under attack from three other snakes. It’s me or them, and something deep in me knew what to do. I consumed them, each one in one gulp each. I felt excited and scared. Excited that I could be part of such mighty deeds, but scared because of my unknown future. How would I be used next? What harm would I be called upon to perform tomorrow?

Moses took me down to a river. I had only heard of rivers. I had never seen so much water flowing in one place in my life. What an amazing source of life and of abundance! Then, without warning, Moses struck the river with me, and it turned into blood. Why?! Why would I ever do that? How could I have betrayed the source of life of every tree on earth? For every living being on earth! This was not what I was meant for. But what I wanted did not matter. I became a tool of punishment and destruction. Plague after plague was invoked with me as the symbol of that destruction. When anyone caught sight of me in Moses’ hands, let alone come near me, they would cower in fear and trembling. I became ashamed of how I was being used. I vowed never to harm the waters or any living being again.

After we had left Egypt, the nation was camped out on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. My time of redemption had arrived. Moses used me to part the waters, who graciously did so, despite my complex history with the great river. Finally, I had returned to my roots, as a protector and a guide for people and animals.

Then not three days later, I was able to come to the rescue again. Turns out that the people only prepared for a three-day journey, and were out of water. Moses took me in hand, struck a rock with me, and (I have no idea how this happened) water came pouring out of the rock. And everyone saw, especially the elders. In that moment, they began to see me in a new way. I was not only a tool for punishment, death and destruction. I was a tool for life, abundance and prosperity.

The very next day, they tried to abuse me again. Some cowards and brigands attacked the people from behind, where the weakest of the people were walking. The elderly. Young children. The ill. Moses and the others wanted to use me in a time of war to help defeat the enemy. Despite the need, I refused. When Moses came to look for me, to become a symbol of violence again, I managed to hide myself in his tent. I rolled myself under a blanket, just out of sight. Given the urgency of the situation, he did not spend long looking for me, and gave up. Let him become the symbol of victory in battle, but not me.

Then somehow, I got lost in the shuffle. After the battle was over, Moses came back to the tent, exhausted, relieved, but he did not look for me. He had found that he did not need me in his hands all the time. His empty hands alone were enough for the people. However, Moses did find me again later. Most of the time, I was just his walking stick. There were no more plagues to invoke, no more droughts to end. Just a walking stick. I was there to support him in his work. Every know and then, someone who remembered would see me in Moses’ hands, and fall back or run away in terror, a reminder of the role that I had played for so long. Those memories were hard to erase.

Years passed, things became normal in our wanderings in the wilderness and eventually I was given a place of honor in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the entire camp. I was in the same room as the Ark, which held two pieces of rock from Mount Sinai, which was exactly where I had been thrust into that mysterious fire, and a jar of this foodstuff called manna, which was what the people ate every day. Hardly anyone every came in to see us. We were like a small museum to the past. We kept each other company. You should hear the stories that the ark, the stone tablets and manna could tell you, but that if for another time.

And there I sat until the entire generation that had left Egypt died in the wilderness. It was better that way. Better that those who remembered me a tool of destruction should let those memories fade. Let them die and not tell those stories about me.

Now we come to today. My final act. My last chance to start over. My chance to become a symbol of life for a new generation. Miriam, Moses’ sister, died earlier this week, and, at the same time for some reason, the water supply gave out. As if the past forty years had not happened, the people got thirsty, frustrated and angry again. It was back to square one all over again.

Sitting in the Holy of Holies, I could feel the people’s anger, being drawn to our sacred space like a magnet. But  this time, it was met with a stronger presence. That same feeling from the fire on the mountain came over me, that feeling of intense connection, of that Great Tree. If I had to locate that feeling in space, it would have come from above the cover of the ark, in between the two cherubim. It was a feeling of love, concern and compassion, meant to counteract the anger of the people, to let them know, that even in these moments of death, grief, and fear, that there is a presence in this universe that loves them, sees them in their sorrows and pain, and tries to comfort them, to show everyone that together there is the possibility of compassion and peace.

The sound of footsteps. The curtain to our private museum was quickly moved aside. Moses briskly entered our space, and, for the first time in years, sees me and takes me. In his grip, I can feel the fatigue, the frustration, the feeling that he is slipping, that the frustration is slowly bubbling over into anger.

Why could he not have lingered in my sacred space for more than a moment? Had he stayed there in that space, in that presence, maybe he would have felt that love, and compassion that I felt. What if he had just taken a few minutes in that private place to gather himself, to stand in that presence. What if…?

I was taken out into the light for the first time in a generation, and I saw the people. They were not slaves anymore. They were strong, tall and powerful. Tanned by the sun and born free in the wilderness. They had an air of discipline and focus to them, even in their distress. Moses looked so old compared to the eldest of them.

Moses opened his mouth: “Listen you rebels…” Listen you rebels? Why did he have to call them that? They were not rebelling! Why did he meet their anger and frustration with his own? It’s like he’s talking to someone else, or their parents and grandparents when they wanted water forty years ago.

Then the two blows come. One and then the other. Then the water flowed. And I become a sign of violence again. Yes, there is water, but at what price? I could have become a symbol of that connection to the Great Tree! I could have been a symbol of life, flowing energy and trust! Instead, I am reduced again to a weapon, a threat, a symbol of power to inflict pain, insult; to club a people into submission.

As the people drink, and slake their thirst, I can feel the disconnect. I suddenly felt the distance between Moses and the people. Maybe it was always there and I just became aware of it, or maybe there was a rupture in that moment. I actually don’t know how long it had been absent, whether it was moments or months, but in that moment, I could feel the chasm between them.

Something holy had broken, and nothing could fix it.

What if Moses had thought back to the time when we did this forty years earlier, to the love he felt for the people back then in those first days of literation, and channelled that love for those people to the ones standing before him now. If only I had never been used for punishment, for violence, for threats and death, but only for shade, guidance, splitting the waters, bringing water from the rock, then maybe when he held me in his hand, I could have been the key to unlocking everything that happened before this moment and everything that happened after this moment. Maybe I could have become more than a thing in his hand. I could have become a symbol of trust, connection and love.

Look at your own hands.

What is in your hands?

How will your wield it?