Evolving, like Pokémon



My seven year old is a huge fan of the Japanese cartoon series Pokémon. If you have never shared your life with a Pokémon fan, you might not know that Pokémon are animated creatures (many of them adorable) with varying skills and talents.

On the instruction of their trainers, Pokémon battle one another to see who will prevail. When they are in circumstances of extraordinary extremis, they glow with an inner light and then evolve into new forms with new names. When a Pokémon evolves, it retains the memories, relationships, and general personality of its previous form. But it also changes, growing into a new version of itself with new skills and abilities, denoted by its new name.

There are parallels between this cartoon and the core story of Jewish becoming. Torah tells us that once there were a pair of twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, who wrestled with each other even in the womb. They were estranged for many years. And then came the night when Jacob knew that in the morning he would encounter his estranged brother again...

That's the opening of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily, which explores the intersection of Pokémon and next week's Torah portion. Read the whole thing here: Evolving, like Pokémon.


A Blessing for Becoming (like Esau)

MaxresdefaultReading this week's Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau. 

His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father's innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac's knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?" asks Esau.

And Isaac replies, "But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?"

Esau says to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!" and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau's words: "can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?"

Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. "By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother," Isaac continues, "but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck."

Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau. 

Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God -- the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it's like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau's place, rather than Jacob's, how does Isaac's blessing make us feel?

It's easy to see Isaac's blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. "You'll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him." But I think we can find more in it if we try. 

The first part of Isaac's blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone's birthright even when we're in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac's blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts. 

The next part of Isaac's blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau's. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us -- whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere -- we can draw strength from Isaac's blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.  

And finally, Isaac's blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac's blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac's blessing that things will get better. Isaac's blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.

We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it's like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.

But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn't ask for and didn't want, can serve us well when times are hard -- and even more so when times are sweet.

My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don't come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.

And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.

May Isaac's blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.


Waking up again - for People & The Book / The Jerusalem Report


How much of your life do you spend sleepwalking? How much of your life do you spend going through the motions, carried forward by force of habit rather than any particular consciousness or will? Most of us do this, much of the time.

I wake in the morning, make the kid breakfast, get us dressed, pack our lunches, see him safely onto the schoolbus, and go to work, glancing at emails and Facebook messages all the while. Your variation probably looks slightly different, but not that different. Morning routines followed by the workday, evening routines followed by sleep.

There are good reasons why human beings routinize daily acts. Otherwise we'd be paralyzed by possibility. But the danger of routine is that we stop noticing what's beautiful, or moving, or real. Our lives become cookbook recipes from which we never divagate. We forget to add the most critical ingredients: mindfulness and heart. We move through our lives asleep.

This week's Torah portion offers us a striking example of what it might look like to wake up. Jacob rests his head on a stone and dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it. (Ex. 28:12) He has an encounter with God and when he wakes he is shaken: "Surely God is in this place," he exclaims, "and I -- I did not know!" (Ex. 28:16)...

Those are the first few paragraphs of my latest essay / d'var Torah, written on next week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, for the "People & The Book" section of The Jerusalem Report

Those who live in Jerusalem can pick up a print copy of the magazine; others can click through to read the column at The Jerusalem Post



On grief and moving forward

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of my congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday's outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one's house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as "Go forth," but they can also be understood to mean "Go into yourself." Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds -- of race and creed and sexual orientation -- are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don't know how we will do that. I don't know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.



You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.

Safe from the storm: a d'var Torah for parashat Noach


This year as I read this week's Torah portion a three-word phrase leapt out at me. It comes after the part about how Noah built the ark, and all the animals that he collected inside it -- between all of those descriptions, and the Flood itself. ויסגור ה' בעדו: "And God shut him in."

Rashi notes that the literal meaning of this phrase is that God closed the door of the ark behind Noah, protecting him from the waters that would rage outside the door. The commentator known as the Radak writes that "God protected him against the chance of even a small hole opening in the ark as a result of the powerful rains." One way or another, this verse seems to be saying something about God protecting Noah and keeping him safe through the storm.

As the cold weather approaches, we -- like Noah -- batten down the hatches. Maybe we tinker with our storm windows, spray insulation into cracks and crevices, put an extra blanket on the bed. If that's true as we anticipate literal storms, how much more true as we anticiapte emotional and spiritual storms. Every life has periods of turbulent waters. As we face those waters, we yearn to be cared-for and tucked-in, to have God's presence securing and protecting us.

I'm not a sailor, but I know that when big storms arise sometimes the only way through is to lower sail and let the storm rage. Often storms move us to new places: as the winds and currents can move a boat into new waters, when emotional currents surge strong they may carry us to places we didn't expect. Authentic spiritual life asks us to weigh anchor and let ourselves be moved, trusting that even when external circumstances are swirling around us we can touch stillness and eternity.

One of the reasons to maintain spiritual practices when the sailing is smooth is so that those practices are there to sustain and protect us when storms pick up. If I remind myself every morning to pause to articulate gratitude for being alive, then maybe when the tough mornings come the habit will be engrained enough to carry me through. If I pause before sleep to try to let go of the day's mistakes and hurts, then maybe I can wake into the infinite possibility of the new day, even when sleep came on the heels of weeping.

How can we feel secured and protected, as Noah might have felt when God lovingly closed the door behind him? Maybe it's a phone call or a text message from a friend reminding us that we're not alone. Maybe it's reading an essay that makes us feel seen and understood in who we most deeply are. Maybe it's putting on a piece of jewelry that feels like a talisman. Maybe it's a session with a therapist who reminds us that our stories matter, or a spiritual director who companions us in our journeying.

Our liturgy tells us that we are loved by an unending love, an אהבת עולם. For me, the presence of that love is what secures the door and keeps me safe from the storm. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of that love in the love I feel for my child, or the love he feels for me. Sometimes I brush up against it in the connection between me and my most beloved friends. Sometimes I feel that love manifest in the extraordinary beauty of creation, in the rise of early morning light over our hills now dressed in November's muted palette or the calliope song of geese migrating overhead at dusk.

What makes you feel seen and cared-for? What carries you safely through life's storms?


This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this Shabbes. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Back to the beginning


This week we begin again. The cycle of fall holidays is finally over: we have returned to ordinary time. I don't mean by that term precisely what my Christian cousins mean by it -- for them it has a more particular liturgical meaning than it does for us. What I mean is something more like חול / chol, non-sacred time. Usually we speak in terms of שבת וחול / shabbat v'chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the non-sacred workweek. After the star-studded expanse of the Days of Awe and all that comes before and after them, this first ordinary Shabbat of the new year feels to me almost like a kind of chol. It will be Shabbat, of course, which makes it holy -- but it's a holiness that partakes of the regular rhythms of the year. The smaller ebb-and-flow of Shabbat-and-week, rather than the big peaks from which we have only recently descended. We have returned to normalcy.

As the parent of a first grader, I am conscious of the gifts that come with normalcy and routine. Transitions are hard. Big holidays are disruptions in ordinary time, and they need to be -- we need them to be. We need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to be confronted with experiences that awaken our sense of awe and majesty, that remind us that we are mortal and today might be our last chance to lead the kind of life of which we can be proud because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jewish tradition is wise in giving us these things, and in giving us so many of them in a row that our emotional and spiritual defenses weaken and let our true hearts begin to shine through. And after so many of them in a row, now we need the return to ordinary time. Just as my son needs to return to the regular rhythms of schoolnight bedtime, so we need to return to our regular rhythms too. 

And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there's still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It's a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.

Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

Open-heartIn this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute," Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒. 

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute." The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z"l translates those words, that's when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts. 

We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we've been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:

קַוֵּה אֶל-ה׳:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה׳

Keep hope, keep hope -- keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

There's a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of "be strong and resolute," and this verse from the psalm we've been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope. 

We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now.

Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר -- "and there was evening and there was morning." Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile -- which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark -- and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that "once you choose hope, anything is possible." He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It's a turn, like teshuvah.

The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you've been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.


This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. 

Words we can't un-say: a d'var Torah for parashat Ki Tetzei

Words2In this week's Torah portion there is an intriguing passage (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) about divorce. Torah says: when a man takes a wife and possesses her, and then finds something about her displeasing, he is to write her a bill of divorce and she is to leave his house. If she should marry a second time, and then divorce a second time -- or the second husband should die -- her first husband is forbidden from marrying her again.

The Sforno says that this is because to allow remarriage in this way would be a recipe for wife-swapping. Rabbenu Bahya says that this is because the woman in the story has been "known" by another man, so of course it would be inappropriate for her to be intimate with her first husband again. Unsurprisingly, these classical commentators and others take for granted the text's apparent assumptions about gender, marriage, and power. 

There's plenty that is problematic about this passage from a modern perspective. For starters, the idea that a woman "belongs" to anyone other than herself. The presumption that divorce is necessarily initiated by the husband because his wife is no longer pleasing in his eyes. The lack of agency granted to the woman. The notion that a woman who has been with another man becomes תמא / tamei, emotionally and spiritually charged in a way that would be damaging to her first partner if they got back together again.

Not to mention the fact that the text doesn't speak at all about how the woman in this situation feels: did she want to divorce in the first place? How about the second place? What kind of grief is she enduring, especially when the second marriage ends? Torah doesn't say, but we can begin to imagine.

That said, I think we can glean some wisdom from this passage despite its troubling dynamics.

First, let's remove the genderedness from it. Torah is teaching us that a marriage has to be consensual, and requires the active participation of both partners. When a marriage becomes irreparably broken for one partner, it's no longer a consensual whole, and the partnership is broken. A bill of divorce must be written so that the partners can release each other.

Anyone who is considering taking these steps needs to know that words ending a marriage, once said, can't be un-said. Once the marriage has been broken, even if one or both partners should later regret the breaking, it can't be glued back together into the configuration it had before. No one should go into divorce thinking "well, if this doesn't work out, we can go back to the way things were." There is no "going back." Only going forward. In our modern paradigm sometimes former partners do re-marry, but there is no re-creating the wholeness of the first marriage when it was new.

That significant words, once said, can't be un-said is a running theme in this week's Torah portion. The verses about divorce come shortly after verses instructing us to take care in vowing vows to God, because when we promise things to God, we have to live up to them or incur sin. It is better not to make vows, says Torah, than to make them and fail to live up to them.

Promises that we make to God and fail to sustain... we'll come back to those on Kol Nidre night. Once we've said them, we can't un-say them, but we can ask God to forgive us for our failure to live up to who we intended to be.

Promises that we make to each other and fail to sustain... once we've said them, we can't un-say them either. Neither can we un-say words that end a relationship. We should take care with our words, and not commit ourselves to promises we can't keep or to endings we aren't really ready to face. But maybe especially during this month of Elul, we can ask each others' forgiveness -- in all of our relationships -- for failure to live up to what we thought would be. 



[Image source.] This is the d'var Torah I offered at my synagogue yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Balancing judgment with love

Have you ever been asked the question "if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?" One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.

Here's a short quote from that book, talking about this week's Torah portion:

Parashat Shoftim... begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: 'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort -- an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates -- seven windows -- to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.

On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it's about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that's at the heart of this season.

'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' We can't always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there's political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who's acting unfairly or unkindly. I can't un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.

I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say "enough is enough." I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgment. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.

Shabbat Shoftim -- "Shabbat of Judges" -- always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we'll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we've written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.

But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn't in the Palace on high, but "in the fields" with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one's most dearly beloved friend.

Because here's the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can't help seeing everything that's best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that's how God sees each of us. That's the backdrop against which the judgments of Rosh Hashanah take place.

This week's Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn't seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?

And it's also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others -- in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgment in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that's a temptation we need to resist.

Balancing love and judgment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness. 

May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgment, and to infuse our discernment with love.


This is the d'var Torah I offered last night at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

Pursue justice: a d'var Torah for T'ruah


This week's Torah portion contains one of the most famous justice-related verses in Torah: "צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, / tzedek tzedek tirdof" -- "Justice, justice shall you pursue!"   

Although the parsha begins with the injunction to establish judges, this instruction -- to pursue justice -- doesn't seem to be aimed solely at those whose job it is to judge. Even those who don't practice justice for a living do judge others, whether or not our judgements have legal standing. So what does it mean to judge justly -- not just for those who work in the justice system, but for the rest of us, too?

That's the beginning of the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, for T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

You can read the whole thing here: Pursue Justice So That You May Truly Live.

When life feels like a wilderness, at The Wisdom Daily


The folks at The Wisdom Daily have published my latest essay. It's about repetition, and patterns, and this time of year, and discovering who we really are. 

Here's how it begins:  

Sometimes life feels like a wilderness, wild and waste and inhospitable. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, recognizing my own sorrows as ruefully familiar landmarks in an otherwise pathless desert. This painful issue – haven’t I been here before? This broken relationship – why are its jagged edges slicing into me again? This dysfunctional work situation – haven’t I spent forever struggling with these colleagues and their ill will? Why can’t I seem to get out of this place?

You can read the whole thing at their site: When Life Feels Like A Wilderness

The smith speaks

I had work for a while.
The women donated mirrors
and I made the basin for the place
where God's presence dwells.

Since then I've tended goats.
What else is there 
for a coppersmith to do
in this unsettled wilderness?

I missed the tasks of forging
but no one becomes free
without some sacrifice.
Still, others grumble.

They say Moshe dragged us here
to feed his ego. They bitch
if Moshe and God really cared
we would never have left Egypt.

In response God sent snakes.
Wailing spread across the camp
as limbs blackened and puffed up,
as puncture wounds putrefied.

The families of the bitten
begged Moshe to seek God's help.
As though they hadn't slandered him
to anyone who would listen.

As though their attributions
wouldn't wound him, wouldn't
bruise his human heart.
I don't know how he set that aside

but this morning he instructed me
to go to the men for their bracelets.
I crafted a curling snake
as copper-red as tongues of fire.

Moshe said "mount it on a miracle."
A flagpole was the best I could do.
When the snakebit looked upon it
their wounds disappeared.

How did the snake I myself made
channel healing from the One?
Remembering now, my hands shake.
I want to return to my goats.



8668_1317066235_3This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion, Chukat. The people rebel against Moshe and God, and in response God sends a plague of poisonous snakes. When the people ask Moshe to intercede, God tells Moshe to make a copper snake and that those who look upon it will be healed.

Reading the parsha this year, I find myself wondering about the anonymous smith who made the נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת / the copper snake. This year I'm also feeling a lot of empathy for Moshe, who both leads and serves a community that repeatedly speaks ill of him and of their journey. 

During the class I'm teaching on midrash (we're both reading and discussing classical midrash, and writing midrash of our own), this poem is what I've been working on during our writing time.

The opening stanza references a teaching from Rashi, that the Israelite women donated their copper mirrors in order for them to be hammered into the washbasin and laver for the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled within and among the people.

On the cusp of promise

36-Israel-symbol-exampleIn this week's Torah portion, Shlakh, ten scouts are sent to glimpse the land of promise. What they see there terrifies them. The grapes are so big that two men are required to carry a single bundle. They return to the community and report that entering this land is simply not possible: "the inhabitants are giants, and we must have looked like grasshoppers to them!"

They spread their fear to the children of Israel, and God -- incensed that after all the miracles they've experienced, the children of Israel do not trust -- declares that this generation will wander in the wilderness until they die. Their children will enter the land, but they will not. They are too caught in their own fear.

I suspect we all know what it's like to glimpse a land of promise and then to shy away. The work it would take to get there is too vast. The personal changes required are too difficult. Maybe, like the children of Israel who came out of Mitzrayim, "the Narrow Place," we are too shaped by our familiar constraints.

Once limits become habitual, they become invisible: we don't even notice them anymore. We learn to live within a small space. We train ourselves not to grow beyond the box, because outside the box is scary. Outside the box the grapes are as big as beach balls. Outside the box we are afraid we will be as insignificant as grasshoppers.

Spiritual life calls us to recognize our own fear. To notice what buttons are pushed when we think about expanding beyond whatever our limits have been. To breathe into the paralyzing fear of failure, of smallness, of taking on something we won't be able to handle. And spiritual life calls us to breathe through that fear, and to step into the unknown.

When we sing "Mi Chamocha," the song at the sea, I often invite us to remember a time in our lives when we've felt like the children of Israel trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. A time when it felt as though there was no way through. And I invite us to recognize that no matter what seas we're facing, we don't have to cross them alone.

We stand at the shore of the sea no less than our ancient ancestors did. And no less than our ancient ancestors, we are always at the cusp of the land of promise. A place of expansiveness, a place of nourishment and sweetness, a place of divine flow.

We will have to acknowledge our fears in order to get there. We may have to accept our own feelings of smallness. But we can choose to trust even though we are afraid. And when we do, the One Who accompanies us in all of our changes will accompany us into infinite possibility. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.


This is the short d'var Torah I offered this evening at Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

Joy amidst mourning

All week I've been thinking about what I might say here in shul this morning. Mere commentary on this week's Torah portion feels insufficient. How can I talk about the rituals of the nazir, one who makes promises to God -- or the ritual of the sotah, designed to banish a husband's jealousy -- or even the priestly blessing that we just read together -- when LGBTQ members of our community are grieving so deeply? And yet faced with the enormity of the tragedy at Pulse last weekend, my words fail me.

Into this moment of grief comes an expression of great joy. Just moments ago we welcomed a beautiful little girl into the covenant and into our community. What words of meaning can I offer to her two mothers now?

I can say: you belong here. In this community those of us who are straight aspire to be thoughtful and sensitive allies, so that those of us who are queer can feel safe expressing all of who we are.

I can say: tell us what you need. Tell us where we are falling down on the job of making this a safe and celebratory and welcoming home for you, and we will try to do better. I can say: your child will always have a home here, no matter how her gender expression manifests or who she loves.

And I can say: all of us here commit ourselves to building a world in which hate crimes are unimaginable. A world in which no one could feel hatred toward another human being because of that person's race or gender expression or sexual orientation or religion. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that world?

Can you imagine a world in which the tools of massacre no longer exist? In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: "Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them back into plowshares first."

Our tradition has a name for this imagined world in which hatred has vanished like a wisp of smoke: moshiachtzeit, a world redeemed. I don't know whether we will ever get there. But I know that we can't stop trying.

And there is a very old Jewish teaching that each new baby contains all the promise of moshiachtzeit, all the promise of a world redeemed. Maybe this baby will help to bring about the healing of the world for which we so deeply yearn.

May we rise to the occasion of being her community. May we support her and her mothers. May we take action to lift them up and to keep them safe. And may we work toward a world redeemed in which all of our differences are celebrated and sanctified as reflections of the Holy One. 

And let us say, together: amen. 


These are the words I spoke from the bimah yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

First fruits and flow

A d'var Torah written for the second day of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, for after the bikkurim / first fruits parade. I wound up speaking extemporaneously, but what I said more or less followed this outline. 


When we enter into the land we are to bring the first fruits of our harvest to the place where God's presence dwells, teaches the Torah. After we affirm where we are, we recount how we got here. Our ancestors wandered into the land of Egypt, and in time were oppressed there. We cried out to God, and God heard our cries and brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and brought us to this very place, a land flowing with milk and honey.

When we enter into the land --

Today I don't think those words can mean only the land of Israel. They can't refer only to what happened then and there. That may be what they used to mean, but we learn in Pirkei Avot (as Rabbi David mentioned on Shabbat morning) that "every day a heavenly Voice issues forth from Mt. Horeb" -- the revelation of Torah is ongoing, and it's our obligation to find new ways to interpret so that the Voice continues to speak in ways that can be heard.

I like to think that "when we enter into the land" can mean the landscape of the human heart, the interior landscape in which we each find ourselves this year. The season is turning. What new doorway are you walking through as summer approaches?

Granted, I don't want to overlook the land on which we stand today, or to say that the pasuk is only about interior journeying. Whether you call this place Isabella Friedman, or Elat Chayyim, or Hazon, it is indeed a land of beauty and abundance. But most of us who experienced this morning's parade of first fruits did not grow or harvest in these fields, and did not tend to these flocks. This is a borrowed land of milk and honey, and while it is a perfect spot for a pilgrimage, we will all have to go home when Shavuot is over.

Of course, so did our Biblical ancestors. That's why these three great pilgrimage festivals are called regalim -- from regel, foot, because we traveled to get there, and then we traveled home again. We here today drove in cars or took trains or perhaps flew to get here, and "here" is northern Connecticut rather than Jerusalem, but in a deeper sense we are walking precisely in our ancestors' footsteps. At least as far as the pilgrimage part is concerned. 

The first fruits of our harvest --

What harvest did each of us bring here today? The farmers from Adamah may have the most obvious answer, but I think that they too are bringing intangible offerings, as are we all.

That can't just mean the radishes we've grown or the goats we've reared. Of course those are first fruits, and they are beautiful. But the teaching has to be deeper than that. What about the fruits of your intellectual harvest, the ideas and teachings you've taken in and made your own? For those who are ending a school year soon, whether as students or as teachers, what thoughts can you harvest to offer on the altar? What about emotional harvest, the wisdom not of your mind but of your heart?

Continue reading "First fruits and flow " »

Yearning and revelation

Torah comes in many forms. There's written Torah and oral Torah and the Torah of lived human experience.

Revelation comes in many forms, too. Maybe, like the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, you see a piece of art and realize what fades and what endures, and you come away certain that you must change your life. Maybe you're out for a jog when you realize that the pastime you've been enjoying, the one that makes you happy outside of your job, is actually the thing you feel called to be doing as your paying work. Maybe you hear a piece of music and it moves you, and then the melody reverberates in your heart, opening up depths of feeling you hadn't known you were missing.

Revelation isn't just the things we learn, or realize, or recognize. It's how we allow those things to change us.

The Sinai moment is our people's quintessential experience of revelation. Some say that God's own self was revealed to the people on that day. And midrash (Exodus Rabbah) teaches that God's voice divided itself into 70 human languages so that everyone might understand it. Everyone who was there, regardless of age or social station, heard God's voice in a way that they could understand. So can we.

The thing is, revelation doesn't just flow on Shavuot. On Shavuot perhaps the cosmos is aligned in a way that might make it easier for us to receive. Everything we do on that day is designed to open us more deeply to what's coming through. But the divine broadcast is ongoing even when it isn't Shavuot.

Continue reading "Yearning and revelation" »

The spiritual call to empty one's cup

TeacupThe last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, begins with an if/then: "If you follow My engraved-commandments and faithfully observe My connective-commandments..."

If we allow God's commandments to be engraved upon our hearts, and if we guard the mitzvot and keep them close to us, then a lot of good things will come to pass, says Torah, including good rains and good harvests and peace in the land. But the promise that leapt out at me this year was "you will eat old grain long stored, and you will have to clear out the old to make room for the new."

What does it mean to eat old grain long stored? To me this evokes what we've set aside for the proverbial rainy day. Torah seems to be suggesting that if we keep the mitzvot, if we allow them to work on us and perhaps even change us, we will feel safe consuming the resources we set aside. Because an abundant flow of new blessings will be waiting to come our way, and we won't be able to receive those blessings until we make room for them.

Maybe some of you know the Buddhist parable of Nan-in and the teacup. Nan-in was a Buddhist monk, and someone came to him to learn the wisdom of Buddhism. Being a good host, he served tea to his visitor. He filled his visitor's cup and then kept pouring the tea, so that it overflowed. The visitor leapt up, angry, and demanded to know why Nan-in was making such a mess. "You are like this teacup," said Nan-in. "Your mind is already full of what you think you know. How can I pour in the wisdom you seek unless you first empty your cup?"

Sometimes spiritual life demands that we empty our granaries, that we empty our cup: that we let go of our certainties and allow new possibilities to change us.

Notice this, though: Torah isn't saying that if we have trust in the abundance that is coming, then we'll be able to do the mitzvot. Doing the mitzvot comes first. Act first, and trust will follow. And even if it doesn't, act as though it does. Do the mitzvot, and then take the leap of faith of trusting that abundance is coming. The first thing we're asked to do is to practice mitzvot. The second is to trust that the universe will repay us with shefa, with the boundless flow of blessing.

This isn't investment advice -- Torah isn't telling us to burn our savings because if we follow the mitzvot we'll be rewarded with riches. This is spiritual counsel. If we take on what our tradition calls ol malchut shamayim, "the yoke of the kingdom of heaven" -- if we accept the mitzvot upon ourselves -- then God will ask us to take a leap of faith and to trust that good things are coming.

The word malchut, often translated as kingdom or sovereignty, has another meaning. To our mystics, malchut connotes Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Presence of God. Those of us who have been counting the Omer may have noticed that the seventh day of each week of the Omer is considered a day of malchut, a day of Shechinah's presence. When we take on the mitzvot, we're not just accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. We're accepting the enfolding embrace of the Shechinah.

And when we know ourselves to be enfolded in God's loving presence -- when we know that we are loved by an unending love, when we can feel the connection of that loving presence wherever we go and whatever we do -- then we can take the leap of faith that spiritual life demands. Then we can trust that there will be abundance in our lives and in our hearts.



This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Metzora at Kehilla Community Synagogue)


Shabbat Shalom.  I come bearing perhaps surprising news: Pesach is almost upon us. This is Shabbat haGadol, the "Great Shabbat" immediately before Passover. Traditionally, as Reb David mentioned last night, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give sermons about preparations for Pesach.

Preparations for Pesach take many forms. For some of us this is a season of intensive physical house-cleaning, when we strive to remove every crumb of חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our homes. For many of us, this is a season of intensive spiritual house-cleaning, when we strive to clear the spiritual hametz from our hearts so that we may walk ever more upright into a future of renewal opening right before us. I don't much enjoy the physical housecleaning, but the spiritual housecleaning is my idea of a good time. I love that our tradition gives us this opportunity for reflection as Pesach draws near.

If I believed in coincidences, maybe I’d believe that our visit to Kehilla for the ALEPH Listening Tour just happened to coincide with this season of renewal.  But I think it's no coincidence that our time with you here, in this city which is one of Jewish Renewal's beating hearts, comes at this sacred season.

We set out on this year of listening to invite self-reflection – and reflection by all who care about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal -- about where our movement came from, where it's been, and where we might want to take it next.  We did so knowing that a future of renewal, all that this movement can be, is starting to open right before us -- and also knowing that it wasn’t yet clear what that future would be or how we’d get there.  There’s a certain leap of faith that we’re all taking -- being here in such a self-reflective way, visioning a future perhaps difficult to see, making ourselves vulnerable to the truths of what needs fixing, and going forward before our plans are ready.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Passover -- going before we’re ready, not yet knowing how or where, trusting the way forward for transformation and renewal, and taking a leap of faith not despite not-knowing but precisely into the not-knowing.

Our people have done this before.  Our ancestors left a familiar enslavement with no idea where God would take them or how their lives might unfold. With the Exodus we reboot the story of Jewish peoplehood, the story of becoming who we most deeply are. Each year we're called to rededicate ourselves to taking the risk of leaving enslavement and choosing to become.

That's exactly the spiritual challenge that Jewish Renewal places in front of us. Are we willing to take the risk of reshaping Judaism so that it truly speaks to this moment of such profound social, generational and planetary change? Are we willing to take the risk of co-creating that kind of Judaism, risking that we might fail? Reb David and I, and everyone at ALEPH, are taking the risk to trust that your answer is yes. 

Continue reading "Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real" »

Letting your light shine

Glowing-person1וַיְדַבֵּר יי אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ...

"The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the skin of the flesh a sore ..." (Leviticus 13:1-2).

Tazria is not my favorite Torah portion. There are no "bad" Torah portions -- there's good in all of them! -- but I can admit that this is one with which I have struggled over the years. Some years I struggle with the teachings about childbirth. This year I got bogged-down in the verses about this skin condition and its treatment. Fortunately, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet -- Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- came to my rescue.

The Sfat Emet looks at the half-verse I cited above, and enters into it with a kind of Hebrew pun. He makes a link between the Hebrew words 'or (עור), meaning skin, and 'or (אור), meaning light. With this move, he radically transforms what Torah is talking about: suddenly this is no longer about an illness that generates sores in the skin, but a spiritual illness which does something to a person's inner light.

In Bereshit / Genesis, when the first humans are exiled from Eden, God makes them garments of skins. Our mystical tradition reads this creatively to suggest that we didn't have skins at all until we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- before we ate from that tree we were garbed in pure light. At havdalah, when we hold up our hands to the flame, we see glimmers of light reflected in our fingernails -- maybe a reminder of the light in which we were once clothed, or maybe a reminder of the light in which we will be clothed in the world to come, since there's also a teaching from the Zohar that in the world to come we will wear garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life. (I've written about these ideas before.)

So: Torah is talking about a physical affliction in one's skin, but the Sfat Emet is (mis)reading it as being about an affliction which keeps one's light from shining.

I've been thinking a lot lately about skin as what covers us and keeps us safe from the world. Have you ever had times in your life when you've felt especially "thin-skinned," especially vulnerable to harsh words or difficult realities? Sometimes I've come away from a week on retreat feeling that the week of prayer and study and community and safety has made my skin feel too thin for the "regular" world. Often by the time I get through the intensive spiritual work of the Days of Awe, my skin feels thin and my heart feels close to the surface, even exposed. 

Skin keeps us safe. But -- at least according to the Sfat Emet -- it shouldn't keep us from shining. You might remember that when Moshe came down from Sinai his face glowed, maybe because his inner light was able to shine through his phyical skin. It's as though his skin became transparent and everyone was able to see his true light. And it's worth remembering that his light was too much for the people, so he had to veil to protect them from the radiance he acquired as a result of his experience of God. Sometimes people don't want to see radiance. Maybe it scares them, or reminds them of how their own light has been kept from shining.

For the Sfat Emet, tzara'at represents a closing or clogging of our pores, which results in our light not being able to shine through. (It's noteworthy that the root of the word tzara'at suggests narrowness and constriction.) Tzara'at is a metaphor for what happens when we sin, when we miss the mark: we become clogged or closed-off and our light can't shine.

What kinds of things -- experiences, relationships, encounters -- make you radiant?

Can you feel it when your inner light is shining through? What does that feel like to you?

What gets in the way of your inner light shining? 

When something is blocking the flow of that inner light, how do you cleanse yourself -- what can you do in any or all of the four worlds of body, emotion, thought, and spirit -- so that your light can shine again?


This is a teaching I gave over yesterday morning during Torah study at the P'nai Tikvah Shabbaton in Las Vegas where I was privileged to be scholar-in-residence for the weekend. Deep thanks to Rabbi Yocheved Mintz and the P'nai Tikvah community for inviting me.

(Image source.)


Attuning to the Presence

WIT-922AThe verse which leapt out at me this year when I sat down to study this week's parsha is this one (Leviticus 9:6): 

ויאמר משה זה הדבר אשר צוה הויה תעשו וירא אליכם כבוד הויה

The JPS translation renders that verse as follows:

Moses said: "This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you."

And then the text goes on to share the details of ancient sacrificial practices designed for that purpose. What struck me this year was that final clause, the one that speaks about us seeing the Presence of the Divine.

Here's another way of rendering those same Hebrew words:

And Moses said: "This is the thing that Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) offers as a connective-commandment, in order that y'all may be attuned to the Glorious Presence of the Divine."

We may imagine that seeing God's Presence was something which was only available to our ancestors in Biblical times. Torah tells us that as they wandered in the wilderness they saw a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but we don't get that kind of assurance. We don't get that kind of connection.

Except that we do. Or we can. That's what the mitzvot are for. The mitzvot are like tuning forks. The musicians among us know that when you strike a tuning fork it resonates at a particular frequency. The mitzvot help us attune ourselves to the presence of God, to the presence of something beyond ourselves. 

The purpose of lighting Shabbat candles isn't just to kindle a couple of pretty lights on a Friday night -- it's to arouse our ability to be conscious of God's light in the world.

The purpose of making havdalah isn't just to give us a nice bookend for the end of Shabbat -- it's to tune our inner instrument so that as we enter into the new week we resonate at God's frequency.

The purpose of blessing our food before we eat isn't just to remind us to be grateful -- it's to awaken our awareness of the sparks of divinity even in the thiings we consume.

The purpose of feeding the hungry isn't just to relieve their suffering -- it's to recognize that God's Presence is present in those who hunger.

The purpose of studying Torah isn't just to learn about our tradition -- it's to tune our inner radios to the divine broadcast which is still ongoing.

God's Presence is all around us. Every moment can be infused with awareness of divinity. That's the lesson of hashpa'ah, spiritual direction, which asks: where is God in what is unfolding in your life right now? 

Spiritual direction is a tool for becoming attuned to God's presence.* Prayer is a tool for becoming attuned to God's presence, and it's one which is available to us here every week in community -- and is available to each of us on our own every day.

And every mitzvah is a tool for becoming attuned to God's presence, a tuning fork which rings out a sweet, clear note. When our hearts resonate with that note, when our hearts are attuned to God, then we can find the Divine Presence in everything we do. 


This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul during our contemplative Shabbat morning service yesterday.


*and it's one which I'm blessed to be able to offer to our community because of the three years I spent in ALEPH's hashpa'ah program.