One year ago:
a hospital room
on the seventh floor.
I stood for Hallel
in grippy socks
and thin johnny

my hand adorned
with a heparin drip
on a wheeled pole,
leadwires and stickers
reporting on
my unruly heart.

Most days
I forget.
Mind busied
with counting
how many meetings
are scheduled.

Did I make room
in the car
for my son's double bass,
is there milk
in the house
for tomorrow's cereal?

But then
your voice knocks
and my heart wakes,
remembering --
being alive
is revelation.



Ready to Receive: Bamidbar 2023 / 5783


This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Numbers -- in Hebrew, Bamidbar. That's the name given both to the book of Numbers, and to this week's Torah portion, which begins:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧''ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד

And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting... (Numbers 1:1)


The wilderness of Sinai.

Bamidbar means in the wilderness. Midbar, wilderness, is related to m'daber, when someone speaks. The wilderness is where we hear the voice of God. And the quintessential example of that is Sinai, where we received the revelation of Torah long ago in a time beyond time; when we continue to receive Torah even now, in our day. You might have noticed that I just scrambled place and time. Hold that thought.

So we're in the wilderness of Sinai. Torah also locates this in the Ohel Mo'ed. When the word mo'ed appears with ohel, tent, it's usually translated as Meeting. This is the Tent of Meeting, the place where community comes together. But on its own, mo'ed means season, appointed place or time. As in the מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔''ה / mo'adei YHVH / God's "fixed times," that we just read about in Torah. (Lev. 23:2)

Shabbat is first among those fixed or appointed times. Every seventh day we rest, as God rested; we live as-if the world were already redeemed; we taste eternity. And then Torah lists the other Biblical moadim, the oldest among our festivals. Pesach, and Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the Days of Awe. These are our earliest moadim, the most ancient appointed times of connection with our Source.

"And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai," -- the place of revelation; "in the ohel mo'ed," -- both the tent of community meeting, and a sacred fixed point in time. That's where this verse places us: in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere -- which is where God speaks (or maybe where we hear), where we're receptive as satellite dishes, at the nexus of holy space and holy time.


I kind of imagine our souls at Sinai as a human version of the Very Large Array. 

In the Midrash we read:

Why [was Torah given] in the wilderness of Sinai? Our sages taught: Torah was given with the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness... Why was the giving of Torah marked by these three? To show that as these are free to all, so too the words of Torah are free. Anyone who does not make oneself as open (hefker / ownerless) as the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah.

(Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:7)

In order to receive Torah, we too need to become hefker, ownerless. Torah was given at Sinai because in antiquity "the wilderness" had no owner. Because it was hefker, it belonged equally to everyone. Hefker is a legal term, often used in the context of "land that is declared ownerless by a beit din." But I'm most interested in what it means for us spiritually, what it teaches us about how to prepare for revelation.

Becoming hefker means not letting ourselves be "owned" by our achievements. Maybe we become so attached to a job or a role that it begins to "own" our sense of self. Or our sense of self gets tied up in whether or not we get a certain job,… and then what happens at retirement? When we define ourselves through what we accomplish and how others see us, that can get in the way of receiving Torah.

Hefker means not letting ourselves be "owned" by our attachments. It's so easy to get attached in our relationship to possessions. What kind of car we drive, or maybe we've chosen not to drive at all. Where we get our clothing, whether "I wear name brands" or "I only buy secondhand." When we define ourselves through our stuff or lack thereof, that can get in the way of receiving Torah, too.

Honestly, if we define ourselves wholly through our emotional "stuff," our baggage or our traumas or the harms we've endured, I think that can get in the way of receiving Torah too. Let me be clear: I'm not saying that having experienced trauma blocks the flow of revelation! I'm saying that when we get too attached to any piece of our identity, we block ourselves from being open to something new.

And no aspect of our identity makes us "worthy" of receiving Torah. The worth of a human soul is both infinite and innate. We merit the receiving of Torah because that's our covenant. God gives us Torah, and we aspire to live a life of meaning through the mitzvot, the commandments, contained therein. We merit the receiving of Torah every time we say yes to that covenant, to living our Jewish values.

On some level, Torah is ours even if we're full of ourselves. But as we ready ourselves for Shavuot, for standing again at Sinai, for receiving Torah anew, I'm moved by that midrash from Numbers Rabbah about becoming hefker. In some way, becoming hefker feels like a call to become more simply ourselves, unencumbered by roles or expectations. It reminds me of the Zen parable of Nan-in and the teacup.


There was a Japanese Zen master named Nan-in who lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). During his days as a teacher, he was visited by a university professor curious about Zen.

Being polite, Nan-in served the professor a cup of tea.

As he poured, the professor’s cup became full, but Nan-in kept on pouring. As the professor watched the cup overflow, he could no longer contain himself and said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

Nan-in turned to the professor and said, “Like the cup, you are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Like that professor, we need to empty our preconceptions, our over-attachments, before we can receive Torah anew. This is big spiritual work. That's why our tradition gives us the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot! And this is not just for priests (who don't exist anymore), or rabbis, or sages, or Hebrew-speakers, or people in power. The Midrash reminds us of that, too.

“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.”

(Midrash Exodus Rabbah)

Torah flowed in a way that all the world could understand. And God's "voice" -- which of course isn't a literal voice -- is pitched in a way that can reach us where we are. Torah reaches every person in accordance with our capability to hear. Torah's like the manna that fell in the wilderness. Midrash teaches that each person tasted something different, depending on what they needed:

The infants in accordance with their faculties; just as this infant would suckle at his mother's breasts, so he would taste it; as it is stated: "And its taste was like that of a cake (leshad) baked with oil.” [This is a pun on shadayim, breasts.]

And the youths in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: "My bread also which I gave you, fine flour, and oil, and honey, wherewith I fed you" (Yechezkel 16:18).

And the adults in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: "And the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Just as the manna, each person tasted it in accordance with his faculties, so the commandment, each person heard it in accordance with his faculties.

(Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 12, 25)

Everyone found in the manna what they most needed. Torah is the same way: one text, from which we take away different wisdom depending on who we are, and when and where we are. We find different things in Torah depending on what we need. So... what's the Torah that you most need this year? What's the wisdom, the new interpretation, the deep justice and love that you most need this year? 


Image by Steve Silbert.

The divine broadcast continues to sound, and we receive it when and where we are attuned. And one of our tradition's times to "tune in" is in just a few days, when we gather at the foot of the mountain to hear God's voice anew. So get ready to tune the dial on your inner spiritual radio. Or maybe I should say subscribe to God's podcast (or God's TikTok?) because new episodes are dropping all the time.

We're all invited to let go of attachment to stuff or status, role or expectation, because all of those can block our capacity to hear the divine broadcast. We get to drop everything extraneous, and each of us gets to be our purest, most essential self. You'll know best how to embody that change on Thursday afternoon. Some people immerse in a mikvah, some use meditation, some use song.

And then without preconceptions we open our hands and our hearts. We come to the table with an empty teacup, ready to be filled. We open to Torah, to wisdom, to the spiritual sustenance we need.

See y'all at Sinai, real soon.


This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel gave at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Life lessons

Before I became a rabbi, I worked as an editor. I edited a monthly paper in south county for a few years after my first stint in graduate school (MFA in writing and literature at Bennington.) A good editor, I came to understand, is one who helps a work become the best version of itself: not imposing her own voice, but helping the writer refine their gem in the ways that will most allow it to shine.

Over the last few years I've been bringing that skillset to the publishing work I do at Bayit.  Y'all, it is so much fun. I love helping people uncover what's best in their work. I love uplifting voices that move me. (Arguably this is part of why I co-founded a Jewish spiritual innovation incubator in the first place.) I love how together we can bring forward something that is more than the sum of our parts.

About two years ago, a manuscript came our way that piqued my interest. It's by R. Mark Asher Goodman, a rabbi who at the time I only knew over Twitter. His book features Hassidic texts -- many of them translated into English for the first time -- and opens them up for a modern reader with wry and self-deprecating humor, pop culture references, and quotes from the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's called Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People. Would Bayit be interested in publishing this book?

Would we ever


Introducing... Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People

by R. Mark Asher Goodman; cover art by R. Zac Kamenetz

published by Bayit: Building Jewish

The process of bringing the book to press has taken longer than I thought it would, of course. The last couple of years have been challenging ones. Not just the continuing global pandemic and American political upheaval, but also my father's illness and death, and my heart attack and continuing health quandaries, on top of rabbi-ing and parenting and all the normal things that need to get done.

But it is so worth the wait. Hasidic texts are a particular passion for many of us at Bayit (I've been blogging about them since the early years of Velveteen Rabbi when I was in rabbinical school), so that aspect of the book is already my jam. If you're a longtime reader of Hasidic texts, you'll find familiar kinds of wisdom here -- plus also perhaps some texts from rebbes you haven't encountered before.

If you're new to the Hasidic world, if you can't read Hebrew, even if you're a spiritual seeker with no connection to Judaism at all: wow are you in for a treat. Each chapter contains questions for contemplation, texts in translation, and Mark's commentary. And Mark's voice is unique. Heartfelt and thoughtful, and also sometimes snarky, geeky, and irreverent. These are a few of my favorite things.

I wish I could say we planned to launch on Lag Ba'Omer, the holiday when we light bonfires to represent the fire of mystical Torah wisdom still shedding spiritual light in our day. Truth be told, it was a coincidence of timing and data propagating. Then again, maybe every coincidence is God's hand at work. Who am I to say that this wasn't the Kadosh Baruch Hu pulling some digital strings? 

Anyway, you can learn more about the book (and click through to buy a copy, if you're so inclined) on its page on the Bayit website: Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis. And while you're there, I hope you'll click through to see Bayit's whole catalogue, e.g. the other books that we've published and are in the process of publishing. We've been entrusted with some really amazing work. I am so grateful.

Thanks for listening to me kvell about the newest book I've been blessed to midwife into being.  If you love the cover of Life Lessons, check out R. Zac Kamenetz's psychedelic portraits of rabbis and rebbes. (And here's a link to his work with Shefa, doing Jewish psychedelic support.) Find author R. Mark Asher Goodman here. And stay tuned for info on Bayit's upcoming books, coming soon. 




"I burst into tears the minute I saw the news." I've already heard that this afternoon from more women than I can count.

I want to say first: if reading anything about the E. Jean Carroll case might harm you, maybe because you are a survivor of assault or defamation and this whole news cycle is like salt in a reopened wound, please take care of yourself and click away if you need to.

And if that's not you, and if you are one of the people weeping this afternoon because the jury in the Carroll case found the defendant liable for both battery and defamation --

because of the sheer existential relief of knowing that at least here, at least once, a woman who's been deeply harmed both physically and reputation-wise is believed and is vindicated --

because like so many of us, you've been braced against the fear of yet another news cycle filled with reminders that it doesn't matter to the world if someone touches us without consent, or spreads hateful vitriol and lies in order to discredit us --

because there's a spiritual relief in truth, and in facts, and in justice, especially against the backdrop of years of national gaslighting --

-- if any of this describes you: please know that you're not alone, and I see you, and I am holding you in my heart.

Touching Eternity: Emor 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Emor, gives us a roadmap for the spiritual flow of the Jewish year. First is Shabbes. "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest." (Lev 23:3) Then comes Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Then the seven weeks of the Omer, the corridor of time we're in right now. Then Shavuot on the 50th day, festival of first fruits.

Then Rosh Hashanah, a day of shofar blasts. Of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. Torah says, "וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם " -- usually translated as "you shall practice self-denial," though I prefer to read it as, "You shall answer your soul." Four days later, Torah says, it's time for Sukkot. Build a sukkah and live in it. Gather lulav and etrog. Rejoice before God for seven days, and the 8th day is a festival day too.

It's an outline of the Jewish spiritual year. Every seventh day, we're supposed to rest. Shabbat is first and foremost: the basic unit of Jewish time is six days of regular week and a seventh day of Shabbat. And then we move from liberation to revelation to gratitude. From spring harvest (Pesach) to summer harvest (Shavuot) to the Days of Awe and the fall harvest (Sukkot.) That's the cycle of our year.

There are a few holidays that aren't here. Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees. Purim, festival of masks and merriment. Tisha b'Av, when the Temples fell. Chanukah. All of these are post-Biblical. They're from the last couple thousand years, more or less. That makes them positively modern, by Jewish standards! Listed here are the oldest fixed points in the Jewish year, from antiquity to now.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that our holidays aren't wholly separate or discrete. The festivals are connected like pearls on a string. One leads to the next. Notice how the Omer draws a through-line connecting liberation at Pesach with revelation at Shavuot, or how Rosh Hashanah (shofar as spiritual alarm clock) sets up Yom Kippur (answering the call of our souls) which leads to Sukkot.

The festivals connect us with the earth: Passover and Shavuot and Sukkot are all harvest festivals, because in the Mediterranean climate where our tradition originated those are all times of year when things are growing. They connect us with the heavens, too: Pesach and Shavuot fall at full moon, Rosh Hashanah falls at new moon, and of course each week is half of the moon's waxing or waning.

They connect us with community. In antiquity, the Shalosh Regalim / Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) were times of coming-together as a community. Today the Days of Awe and Passover tend to be our big times of convocation. But whether it's three times a year, or twice a year, or every week, these holy times are meant to be celebrated in community, as a community.

And they connect us with our obligation to take care of each other. This week's Torah portion reminds us again that when we harvest, we must set aside grain for "the poor and the stranger," for those who are marginalized. (Lev. 23:22) At Passover we remind ourselves "let all who are hungry, come and eat." At Sukkot, in our rain-prone sukkahs, we rekindle awareness of homelessness and housing insecurity.

The earth, and the stars, and community, and taking care of each other: these are among the most enduring things there are. Empires come and go, and all of these are still here. An individual life has its ups and downs, and all of these are still here. Our festivals connect us with eternity. And I like to hope that even thousands of years from now, maybe orbiting some distant star, they always will.

So notice where we are in the year. Where are we coming from? Where are we going? Take heart in how the Jewish year connects us across both time and space -- with our ancestors and our descendants, and with our fellow Jews everywhere. We're part of something enduring. And may all of this galvanize us in taking care of each other, and of our world, and of our own spiritual lives: now and always.


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)

Barukh She'Amar (2)

Screen Shot 2023-05-02 at 9.17.33 AM

Every sunrise and sunset, birth
and death, blossom and snowfall...
How does Your mouth not tire
of speaking the world into being?

Almighty, we can’t imagine
infinity without growing weary.
It's hard to remember
Your mouth is purely metaphor

though Your speech is real.
You speak every atom
in the universe,
a mighty chord resounding.

If You ever chose silence,
even for an instant,
we would blink out of existence
as though this experiment had never been.


R. Rachel Barenblat



This is a revision of a liturgical poem I wrote several years ago. It appears in my book Open My Lips, published by Ben Yehuda Press.

I still love the imagery in the original poem, and the way the cascade of items evokes the constancy of God's speaking the world into being. And... I've found that it's too long for me to regularly use as liturgy.

So here's a shortened version that works better for my current davenen-leadership style. Perhaps it will speak to you, too.


52862132239_f9c5ba0ece_cSo many things here used to be yours. I'm looking at two little harlequin dolls. Their hands and feet are made of china; their bodies are silken beanbags dressed in bright flowers. They sit on a bookshelf at my house, as they did at yours. The bookshelf itself was yours, once, too. I think you would like seeing your things interwoven with mine. Of course, either you will never see this -- or you are always already here with me. Usually I assume it's the latter. Every now and then I'm racked with grief-stricken certainty that it's the former. When that passes, I go back to talking to you every time I pass your photograph, as though it were a window between here and wherever you are. Last night I dreamed that I held my breath, dove deep down into a vast cistern, and slipped through an airlock into a hidden world. There should have been pressure at that depth, but instead gravity was lighter, like walking on the moon. Do you feel lighter now, unencumbered by the illness that mortal flesh is heir to? Where is the airlock that will let me find my way to where you are? 

How can I



The trees are greening. The vibrant chartreuse of brand-new tender leaves is making its way across the valley and up the hills. There is nothing like this color at any other season. I love it so. 

How can I write about the glorious leaves of the burning bush outside my window when lawmakers across this country are stripping rights from trans people and banning life-saving medical care?

I feel powerless to do anything about Missouri or Montana -- or Texas, where the state Ag department now bans clothing that's "[in]consistent with biological gender." I wish I were kidding about that.

(I mean, Texas has done plenty worse. The governor issued an order classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse. The clothing guidelines are just a surreal topper to an already awful situation.)

There's so much injustice. We must not look away. The Dobbs decision and its impacts. Book bansRegulating what history teachers can teach. "Don't Say Gay" and all that flows from it. 

And now gender-affirming care bans harming trans children in a third of our country... with every indication that their proponents intend to come after trans adults next. (They're already doing so.)

How can I write about spring coming to the Berkshires when so much is so profoundly broken? It feels like fiddling while Rome burns, or admiring pretty wildflowers while ignoring forest fires. 

Then again, how can I not write about spring? To live in this beautiful world without noticing it, without being grateful, is a dereliction of my responsibility to see with open eyes and to offer praise.

I do not help my friends and beloveds suffering oppression in red states by cutting myself off from the beauty around me. I think of these lines from Bertolt Brecht, from Svendborg Poems, 1939:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

There is still beauty, in dark times. There is springtime. There is singing. There are parents who love our children fiercely and want to support them in growing into whoever they most deeply are.

And there's also the terrible shadow cast by those who want to impose their fear of difference or their narrow theology on everyone else. What gives them the right to impose their beliefs on others?

If you're standing between someone and their doctor to ban the life-saving medical care they need (whether reproductive healthcare or gender-affirming care), you're not the good guy. 

And always in the back of my mind now, there's the the awareness that they would enact these controlling policies nationally if they could. Ban reproductive healthcare. "Ban transgenderism."

So I am here to tell you that spring has come to the Berkshires. Daffodils are nodding their heads. The leaves are breathtakingly beautiful. And our world remains broken, and we have work to do. 


What can we actually do?


First thing in the morning
the salon is mostly empty.
A beautician kneels before the altar
with incense, bowing.
Fresh fruit honors the ancestors.
No hungry ghosts here.

The chair next to me is empty.
If I cast my gaze up and to the right
scanning the shelves of polish
I can almost see you
out of the corner of my eye
sitting beside me.

You're wearing capris too, though
you called them pedal-pushers.
Tea-length sleeves, because
you didn't expose your arms
once there were wrinkles.
Bright lipstick, gold hoops.

Your grandson's dating.
Every time the orchestra plays
he wears his grandfather's tie.
How can I miss
these surface conversations
so much?

When I drive, I talk
to Shekhinah in the front seat.
At the beauty parlor I talk to you.
For a moment the incense
overpowers the astringents
like your perfume.



If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, my most recent volume of poetry, written during the first year of mourning my mother.

On talking to Shekhinah -- here's the title poem of the collection before that one, Texts to the Holy.

Words can hurt; so can silence


It's the sixth day of Pesah. Our mystics creatively read the holiday's name as peh sah"The mouth speaks." Seder is a night of story, and that story begins with our ancestors' cry. This whole month of Nisan is dedicated to healing our speech. What better time to offer some small teachings about (potentially) harmful silence and harmful speech? 

(On a weird gender note, try searching for an image of an open mouth speaking. Notice how many of the mouths depicted are femme / wearing lipstick / somewhat flirty / etc. The image search algorithm seems to have a certain bias -- implying that women sure do like to talk, or something? Wow.)

The subject of lashon hara, harmful speech (literally “evil tongue”) has been floating around my corner of the internet lately, and a friend asked if I had any thoughts to share. I do! I’ve spent some time with this subject, and I hope that my thoughts and citations will shed light rather than heat. Buckle up: this is nuanced stuff, and isn’t easily condensed. First, some definitions:

Lashon hara is true speech about someone that damages the person being discussed. A related term is rechilut, gossip / speaking about someone behind their back. Also hotzaat shem ra, “making a bad name,” slander / untrue statements about someone. All are prohibited by Jewish texts, though slander or defamation is considered to be the worst of the bunch.

There’s a famous story (here’s one version) in which someone comes to a rabbi asking for absolution for gossip. The rabbi invites them to cut open a feather pillow. Once cut open, its feathers are picked up by the wind. The moral of the story is that words fly like those feathers: they can’t be unspoken, including to places the speaker may never have intended. 

This Talmud text gets cited a lot: “כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים /  One who ‘whitens another’s face’ (shames or embarrasses them) in public, it is as if that person shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b) In context, it’s part of a conversation about verbal mistreatment. Clearly our tradition does not subcribe to “sticks and stones” etc. Words do matter.

Part of what makes lashon hara complicated is that we’re instructed not to cause halbanat panim / shame even if what we’re saying is true. Remember, lashon hara is presumed to be true speech. But what about the risk of allowing abusive behavior to stand? Is there an ethical obligation to speak in order to protect? (Short answer: yes, I believe there is.)

If someone does something wrong and I call them on it, strictly speaking that is lashon hara. Sometimes both speaking and silence cause harm to the vulnerable, and then we have to choose as best we can. In my understanding (and others, too – e.g. R. Avi Friedman / @AvFriedman) saving others from harm is often the highest ethical obligation.

For more on that, here’s a great summary of the Hofetz Hayim’s teachings on when lashon hara is permissible, maybe even obligatory. We may speak lashon hara (it’s arguable that we must) in order to help others. And, we mustn’t do so lightly. Note that he offers further stipulations, e.g. don’t pass along hearsay, think hard about intentions, this should be a last resort, etc. 

Torah tells us not to stand idly by when our fellow’s blood is being shed. (Lev. 19:15) Given Talmud’s understanding of “whitening the face,” we can say: If person A is slandering person B, we must not stand by as person B is shamed. We should name the slander for what it is. And yet if we speak up, there’s a risk of shaming person A for doing the slandering. 

(This is part of why the Hofetz Hayim is insistent that one must be ethically scrupulous and ensure that if one is going to speak, the 7 preconditions be met: firsthand knowledge, awareness of Jewish law, private tokheha first, the truth and only the truth, constructive intentions, no other available path, and not causing greater punishment than would a court.)

Torah also tells us to rebuke our fellow when our fellow has done wrong  – but not to sin in so doing. (Lev. 19:16)  Rashi says the sin, the missing-of-the-mark, lies in offering tokheha (rebuke) in a way that causes shame, e.g. the “whitening of the face.” It’s our obligation to try not to shame others. And it’s also our duty to protect the vulnerable. Sometimes these two imperatives conflict.

Sometimes the obligation to prevent more harm (“Person C, the thing you are doing is hurting me and may hurt others; please stop”) outweighs the obligation to avoid halbanat panim. If by offering tokheha or naming a wrongful act one might protect others from being harmed, speaking up is an obligation. (More on that in this @jdforward piece by R. Mira Wasserman.)

I don’t think there are easy rubrics for balancing the imperative to speak when others are at risk with the imperative to avoid public shaming. I think it’s an endless and necessary balancing act. Much has been written about this – see the resources compiled in The Torah of #MeToo. (Some of the pieces I’ve already linked or cited are included in that collection.)

A false accusation (of wrong behavior) can cause enormous harm. It seems clear to me that slander and false accusations should be named and rejected. To weaponize a false accusation of unethical behavior not only harms the person falsely accused, it also indirectly harms actual victims of that behavior, making it harder for everyone to take victim testimony at face value.

A parallel harm can also be perpetuated by the weaponized accusation that someone is speaking lashon hara. If a tokheha / critique is genuine, then accusing the critic of lashon hara can be a way to silence them. That in turn can shift the focus in unhelpful ways from the critique (which is a legitimate area of inquiry) to the character or motivations of the critic. 

We see this a lot in #MeToo contexts: when someone is accused of rape, people often bemoan how the accusation has marred his bright future, ignoring the worse impacts on the person who experienced the rape. Accusing the rape victim of “ruining [the accused’s] reputation” with lashon hara is a way of weaponizing Jewish tradition in order to silence the victim.

R. Mira Wasserman notes that “in today’s climate, to be the object of an accusation is to suffer public humiliation.” I find myself thinking a lot about R. Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR)’s book On Repentance and Repair. What if being accused of doing something wrong could be a springboard to inner change work and the outer work that must follow? 

It’s not easy to respond to an accusation in that way. Halbanat panim: the blood drains from the face, the heart pounds, the limbic system activates, anger surges. It’s difficult to breathe through that and reach the other side, and then to look with clear eyes: did I do something wrong? Is there truth in this accusation? What work is there for me to do here? 

And of course this too can be weaponized. Imagine an innocent person who is first accused of unethical behavior, and then told that their unwillingness to be gaslit about their own behavior is further example of what’s wrong with them. Any holy teaching can be misused. My hope is that we who are invested in right speech try hard not to misuse this body of Jewish wisdom.

These dynamics come into play in non-#MeToo settings too, of course. Imagine that I know from personal experience that someone is abusive toward employees. I would feel obligated to warn one applying for a job there; otherwise my silence would make me complicit in their potential harm. I would also feel torn about naming it, because I don’t want to engage in lashon hara. 

The obligation to protect the vulnerable takes precedence over the obligation to guard my tongue. In a case like that one, I would probably reach out privately to share my own experience as a cautionary tale. I’d have to balance my desire to communicate privately against the knowledge that sometimes speaking publicly is the best way to prevent harm.

And if I did choose to speak publicly about harms I’d experienced, I know I’d run the risk of being accused of lashon hara for saying what happened, and people would question my character and my motivations in speaking. (This is hypothetical! I am not talking about my beloved shul! I’m just trying to show that trying to make ethical choices takes nuance.)

Today we aspire to be aware of power dynamics, and those do matter here. We all occupy different positions of power in different relationships. I can be in a position of power because of my skin (white), and also a marginalized one because of my gender (female.) Or in a position of power because I’m cisgender, and also a marginalized one because I’m Jewish.

Relative power in a relationship can impact how we receive critique / tokheha. The same critique might land differently depending on the gender of the person making the critique or the gender of the person receiving it. Sexual orientation, gender expression, age, skin color, level of education – all of these impact who has the power in any given interaction. 

I’m always aware that being a rabbi is a position of power. I don’t think of myself as someone who wields power in an angular or frontal way, but I need to be extra careful. Someone could still experience me as exercising power over them because of my role. And when a spiritual leader causes harm, that harm can be redoubled because of the import of what we do. 

I know that if I harm someone, as a rabbi, I risk damaging their relationship not only with me but with Judaism writ large and perhaps even with the Holy One of Blessing. When I comport myself well, it reflects on my tradition. When I comport myself poorly, the same is true. Whether in actions or in words, I owe it to everyone I serve to be both careful and principled. 

Like the book says, “Being a rabbi means serving as a Symbolic Exemplar of the best that is in humankind, being experienced and treated and expected to act as a stand-in for God, and a walking, talking symbol of all that Jewish tradition represents.” No pressure, or anything. (Hah.) I know that no one can always live up to that. I also know that it’s my job to try as best I can.

So what should one do if one realizes that one has engaged in lashon hara? Own it, and make restitution, including accepting any consequences. Then apologize, though the relationship might or might not be reparable. Then make different choices in future. (This is R. Danya Ruttenberg’s formulation, based in Rambam; I gave a sermon about it last year.) 

That same teshuvah (repentance / repair) framework is also the answer if one realizes that one has engaged in any wrongful interpersonal act. Teshuvah is our constant spiritual and ethical curriculum. Everyone causes harm, and everyone experiences harm. Our task as Jews is to use our tradition’s wisdom in the service of building a world of less harm and more justice.

Judaism instructs us to avoid gossip and lashon hara and especially slander – AND to balance the obligation to avoid shaming others with the obligation to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment. Weaponizing any false accusation is never okay. Neither is weaponizing the language of lashon hara to silence the voice of anyone who’s experienced harm.


This post also exists as a long Twitter thread.

Who's afraid of antisemitism?



Wow, y'all. Is this really how they see us? 

I've heard from a lot of us who are activated by the anti-Soros rhetoric coming from the GOP this week. I happen to be a fan of Mr. Soros' philanthropy, but in this moment that's almost beside the point. Blaming the world's ills on any Jew strikes fear into a lot of hearts, and not without reason.

Conspiracy theories about Soros are rooted in lies about nefarious Jewish control. (That Washington Post piece is from 2018, but it's no less true now than it was then.) Hearing this ugliness during Holy Week, historically a season when Christian slaughter of Jews has surged, adds to the anxiety. 

The Catholic church officially blamed Jews for the death of Jesus until 1965. And for centuries, Eastertide passion plays blamed us for that death in no uncertain terms... which dovetailed with the popular conspiracy theory that we put Christian children's blood in our Passover matzah. 

The false allegation that Jews make ritual use of the blood of non-Jewish children was popularized in the 12th century, resulting in Eastertide violence against Jews in England at the time, and against Jews in Prague in the fourteenth century, and against Jews in Lisbon in the sixteenth century.

In the 20th century, as you might imagine, things got worse. See 1903:Easter Week | A Proclamation Inciting a Pogrom of the Jews, with accompanying write-up from Kishinev. And of course, Hitler and his Nazi propagandists were big fans of this vile rhetoric, and they slaughtered six million of us.

The claim that Jews kidnap and kill Christian children to put their blood in our Passover matzah is so ridiculous it's hard to take it seriously. But scratch the surface of QAnon's lies about a secret cabal harvesting children's blood, and it becomes clear that the lie of blood libel is still with us. 

So yeah, Holy Week is a time of heightened anxiety for many Jews. Even if we haven't experienced violence at this season, many of us know that our ancestors did... which becomes part of our inheritance, whether via epigenetic trauma or because we empathize with our ancestors' suffering.

(Christianity Today ran an article about this in 2004: Why Some Jews Fear The Passion. They were trying to understand why so many of us were afraid around the movie The Passion of the Christ.  I give them credit for recognizing that yeah, we had reason to be afraid. Unfortunately, we still do.)

I used to not be afraid of antisemitism. I thought it was a horror of the past. I thought humanity had finally reached a level of post-triumphalist spiritual evolution in which no one hates other human beings because of how we mark holy time or understand scripture or experience the presence of God.

(Of course, that's not actually why most of them hate us, setting aside for the moment those who shoot up synagogues because they hate Jewish support for refugees. They just need to blame someone for everything that's wrong in the world, and for thousands of years we've been a favorite scapegoat.) 

I thought antisemitism was old news. Then came "Jews will not replace us." And antisemitism at an all-time high. And antisemitism in schools. And did you know Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on earth? And now there's the antisemitic demonization of George Soros... again.

When I started this blog in 2003, people would occasionally ask why I didn't write about antisemitism. My answer then was that I didn't want to give it any energy by naming it, and besides, it wasn't part of my lived Jewish experience, honestly. But these days, I can't not mention it. It's everywhere.

I don't want to be marinating in the fact that some Christians hate us. Especially not during this glorious festival week of Passover which just began. I guess this reality is part of what I'm experiencing as this year's Mitzrayim, the "narrow place" of constriction from which I (and we) yearn to be free.

In the face of this, I want to say: your hatred can't stop Jewish joy. Your hatred can't stop the sweetness that is Shabbat, or the sparkling gems of our festivals set in the wheel of the year. You can't destroy the wonder of our encounter with that Mystery we name as God, or our tapestry of teachings. 

Today is the first day of the Omer, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Today I'll eat matzah, the humble cracker of servitude and the mnemonic waybread of our flight to freedom. Tonight I'll light Shabbat candles, blessing the twin flames that evoke the light of Torah and the light of creation. 

I woke with Jewish words of prayer on my lips, and I'll go to sleep the same way. Today I'll serve my Jewish community as best I can, and parent my Jewish child, and I'll do so knowing that there is joy in my tradition that haters like you can't begin to imagine. No one can take that away from me.


For more on the appalling artwork that accompanies this post: here's a fascinating and distressing article about the original image and its origins "on a blog discussing the conspiracy behind Jewish ritual murder of Christians." In 2001, which is to say, in this century. I wish I were making this up.

Take a Lamb: Shabbat HaGadol 5783

Screen Shot 2023-03-29 at 9.02.00 AM

Today is Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat," right before Pesah. It's customary on this day for rabbis to teach about getting ready for the holiday. Usually that means teaching about removing hametz, whether literally (leaven) or metaphorically (the spiritual stuff we need to shed in order to go free.) And this afternoon it's traditional to study the haggadah -- again, to ready ourselves.

Today is also the 10th of Nisan. On this day our ancestors were told to take a lamb. Bring it into the home and look after it. Four days later, slaughter it and put its blood on the doorposts. The blood on the doorposts would tell the Angel of Death to "pass over." Though the Chizkuni, 1200s, teaches that God didn't delegate that. And surely God knows who we are. Maybe the visible reminder was for us.

What if the blood on the doorposts is to remind us? What do we need to remember? What deep truths do we forget about who we are? What are the costs of freedom -- what might we have to offer up in order to be freed from our stuck places... and to help others who aren't granted full human dignity to get there with us? Those are some big questions. But let's start with a smaller one: why a lamb?

Ramban (d. 1270) says the reason for the lamb is that Aries is the star sign ascendant at this time of year, and God wanted to prove to us that when we go free, it's not because of any luck in the stars. Among other sages, he also suggests that it's possible that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. So the sacrifice of a lamb was a way for us to break any allegiance to the symbol of their "god."

Readying ourselves to go free involved making this korban / offering. And it was supposed to be something familiar, something personal, something we'd been holding on to for a while and had even been nurturing. This pre-liberation offering evolved into the offering of a paschal lamb in Temple times, still represented on the table in our seder. So what's our modern emotional-spiritual equivalent?

I read an article the other day about climate "doomers." What's the point of doing anything, when we've ruined the Earth? It's a compelling question. And yet I keep thinking about Ramban's teaching that the lamb represented idolatry. Isn't fatalism a kind of idolatry, in which we think our hopelessness is stronger than God? (As always, if the "G-word" doesn't work for you try justice or hope or love.)

Nihilism is never a good Jewish answer. Because nihilism is an abdication of responsibility, and Judaism is all about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, to our world, to our Source. Doom and despair perpetuate kotzer ruah, that spiritual shortness of breath that our ancestors knew in Egypt. And if we're stuck in despair, we aren't owning our agency, and we're not creating change.

Here, too, our ancient spiritual story offers a roadmap. Their spirits crushed, our ancestors cried out, and that cry was the first step toward liberation. So yeah, cry out. Feel what's broken and give it voice. And remember that crying-out is the first step. When we face what's broken, when we cry out, we open up a tiny internal space. We open ourselves to the possibility that things could change.

Granted, change may not be easy. Our spiritual ancestors went from Pharaoh's frying pan into the fire of forty years of wilderness wandering. But the fact of a new path is hopeful even if the path is hard. Because nihilism and despair and paralysis say: nothing's ever going to be different. What's broken will always be broken and can never be mended, so it isn't worth even trying. But it is worth trying. 

That "climate doomer" article notes, "Nowadays, climate scientists try to emphasize that climate change isn’t a pass/fail test: Every tenth and hundredth of a degree of warming avoided matters." In other words, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do matters, even if it's not a complete fix. And if we scorn anything short of a complete fix, we're compounding the problem.

Here's a question I sit with: who benefits when we lose ourselves in doom or despair? I think the answer is: whoever has a vested interest, often a fiscal one, in things staying the way they are. And that results in greater harm for those who were already vulnerable -- whether we're talking about people in the path of the next tornado, or schoolchildren helpless against the next mass shooting.

R. Avi Weiss notes the order of operations: before offering the lamb, we clear out hametz. First we cast away the puffery of overinflated ego, because the paschal offering asks humility. The korban Pesah is also the first step toward the revelation of Torah at Sinai... which reminds me that we never know what holy outcomes our choices might set in motion. That's another form of humility.

I like his teaching about humility, though this year I prefer to think of hametz (from לחמוץ, to sour or ferment) not as ego but as sourness. Everyone needs a healthy ego. Often what holds us back from liberation is the old sour stuff: old stories and flaws and resentments, old patterns of seeing ourselves or each other in the worst light... and maybe also old habits of hopelessness and despair.

So first we seek out the hametz we need to clean out of our physical houses and our metaphysical houses. Look within for the old sour stories that no longer serve, and cast them to the burning. Then we can bring the korban Pesah we need to offer up this year -- maybe the helplessness or fatalism that we've been unwittingly nurturing. We offer up the habit, the tendency, the fear that holds us back.

R. Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

"All that rises up bitter, all that rises up prideful, all that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful, all hametz unknown to me... may it find common grave with the dust of the Earth." 

This year, I add:

May our sourness be nullified. May we offer up what we need to let go. May we mark our doorposts with reminders of who we aspire to be. And in that merit, may we go forth ready for freedom.


This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat HaGadol (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)

After Nashville


Yesterday I was reading the Washington Post's long article about the history of the AR-15, and the related piece about how it blows the body apart, when I saw news of the Nashville school shooting.

My heart breaks for every parent, in Nashville and anywhere, faced with the gut-wrenching task of mourning and burying a child. As a mother, I can't think of anything more excruciatingly painful. 

Will my nation ever choose our responsibility to our children over our right to weaponry? The divide between those of us who yearn for that, and those who resist it, feels nearly infinite today.

For me, the Second Amendment's right to bear arms pales in comparison to the right of a child in school or a clubgoer out dancing or a person buying groceries to continue living without being shot.

This is my view as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a parent, as a human being. A human being matters more than a weapon. What we owe to our children, to each other, far outweighs our "right" to kill one another. 

I grew up in Texas. My father (z"l) used to hunt. I have siblings and nieces who shoot skeet for fun. I am not opposed to firearms. I'm opposed to what seems to me to be idolatry -- worship of weapons.

This is not a new or original argument. "Gun worship is idolatry." "Guns are Americans' golden calf." "Have guns become an idol in the U.S.?" "The idolatry of guns in the U.S." "American's idol."

Jewish voices, too: "Gun Violence Prevention." "Gun idolatry." Or see "Jewish ethics and gun control: swords, dogs, and stumbling blocks," which notes that Judaism uplifts responsibilities over rights.

Writing this feels almost pointless. Surely I'm preaching to the proverbial choir. If you read this blog, you probably already agree with me. (And if you disagree with me, you likely won't care what I think.)

Consider this the cry of a broken heart. I know I'm not going to convince anyone; I'm just grieving out loud. My heart cries out for the Nashville dead, and for the other 128 mass shootings so far this year.

Every time there's a school shooting, it's a little bit extra-difficult to send my child off to school the next morning. I know we're probably safe here. It's still hard to let him go again, every single time. 

All I have today are these yearning words from poet Yehuda Amichai z"l (and a link to Armory of Harmony, an organization perhaps inspired by these lines) --

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 into plowshares first.







Phone, shut up about the news.
War in Ukraine, assault on trans rights,

a perp walk and its possibilities --
even the very Facebook where people

will find this poem: none of them help me.
Alert me to pay a different attention.

Listen: the red-winged blackbirds are back.
Forsythia blooms across the muddy lawn.

The angle of light has changed -- even when
the mercury drops, the sun's irrepressable.

From here the willow trees look smudged,
sunny haze hinting at leaves to come.

There will always be seasons to notice.
If all else fails, there's always the sky.



In the car on the way to the orthodontist my son and I were talking about the future. What do we imagine the next fifty or hundred years will bring? He thinks the biggest problems facing humanity are bias (e.g. racism, homophobia and transphobia, antisemitism) and the climate crisis. And he's not sure we can fix either one. Of course, I started arguing for a hopeful outlook. Sure, we may not be able to "fix" either one, but we can make things better than they are now, and in fact I'd argue that we have to. "Sure, Mom," he said. "I mean, of course we do. But you're always more hopeful than I am."

That's normal for his generation, I know. I grew up believing in recycling plastics; he's growing up with climate crisis and coming ecological collapse. I grew up believing that antisemitism was over and homophobia was outdated. He's growing up in an era when our synagogue doors are always locked, with trans friends who know there are states where they can't safely go. I grew up with the certainty that I could make decisions about my own body. He's growing up knowing that every friend with a uterus has lost that certainty, and that rights we thought were solid and stable can be taken away.

I reassure my teen that humanity isn't destined for extinction... though I'm aware that the climate is going to get a lot worse during his lifetime, and that the devastation will likely be worst in places far from here. I reassure him that most Americans don't hate trans and gender-non-conforming folks, or queer folks, or people of color, or Muslims or Hindus or Jews. But antisemitic attacks have been steadily ramping up over the last five years; and so have attacks on queer and trans people, in Florida and Georgia and Missouri and elsewhere; and racism doesn't seem to be going anywhere either...

Can I really promise him that he and his loved ones will be safe from rising seas and worsening storms, from the next pandemic or superbug, from Christian nationalism and white supremacy, from the drumbeat of bigotry? Of course not. I suppose it's always been true. What parent has ever been able to truly promise their child that everything would be okay? Our work as human beings is to live and love and work toward repair even though (or especially because) the world is as broken as it is! But I wish I could give him the luxury of growing up with the kind of whole-hearted optimism I knew.

I've read a lot of articles lately about why kids are struggling with depression and despair. It strikes me that for many of the teens I know, the combination of climate crisis and bigotry (e.g. antisemitism, racism, transphobia) feels pervasive in the world as they know it. How can I tell my kid everything's fine when there are literally hundreds of bills around the country trying to legislate his best friend out of existence, or when a kid on his schoolbus starts praising Hitler (possibly parroting Ye)? All I can do is redirect us toward, "there's work to do to fix things, so let's do what we can, together."