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Year one


"What did we even do for Purim last year?" I wonder aloud to a friend. It's disconcerting. Purim happens every year. Surely last year I must have celebrated it in some way! But I can't remember a thing. It's as though Purim has been wiped off of my mental map. What could we have done?

"Weren't you in shiva?" he asks, and the memory stops me in my tracks. Of course. That's why I can't remember last Purim: I didn't have one. On Purim I was in the midst of the week of shiva. I was new to being wholly parentless. Talk about topsy-turvy: my world was completely upside-down. 

Dad died on the 6th of Adar II (the second Adar that happens in a leap year), right before Purim. As it happens, Mom also died during a Jewish leap year, on the 21st of Adar I. This year's a "normal" one, not a leap year, which makes their yahrzeits feel... not normal, because they've switched places.

On the Gregorian calendar, Mom died in February and Dad died in March. Jewishly, their yahrzeits now orbit around each other. Hers comes first during leap years, which fits the way we experienced it. His will come first during non-leap years. Like this one we're in now. No wonder I feel scrambled.

Dear Dad: what a year it's been. A few days ago I visited your kever. I pressed my palm to the earth and cried. Look how tall your grandson's gotten, I said, as though you can see him more clearly when we're there. I do feel a certain closeness to you and Mom when I'm there, walking where you walked.

One of the things I brought home with me after you died was a silver gragger, engraved from Mom to you and dated January 1, 2000. I wish I could ask y'all about it now. Why a gragger? Why New Year's Day? What was the story? I dreamed of you the other night, but my questions have no answers.

Dear Anonymous


Dear Anonymous Stranger Who Called Me A Kapo This Time,

Thank you for inspiring me to write more today! It's never news that someone's wrong on the internet, and I know there isn't any merit in engaging with your note. But you've reminded me of some things that are worth saying about how I understand Torah; what I stand for; and why I think hiding behind an anonymous email account to send hate mail is such a spineless (and self-owning) move.

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה' אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ

"Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may live and inherit the land that Adonai your God is giving to you." (Deut. 16:20)

You claim to take issue with how I cite this verse -- often, though not always, quoting the first three words instead of both clauses. Granted, our sages often give us only the first few words of a citation (v'chulei / etc), but I don't think that's really what this is about. I think it's possible you just don't like my understanding of the verse. But maybe I haven't been clear, so let me try again.

Torah teaches that the way to really live (some translations say thrive) is to pursue justice and aim for it with all our might. Without justice, we won't inherit the land. This message found in Torah is echoed by a variety of our classical prophets: if we don't do what's right, the land will spit us out (and, it's implied, we'll deserve it -- because we're supposed to be pursuing and practicing justice.)

"Tzedek tzedk tirdof" applies no matter where we live. In every place where Jews make our homes, we're called to pursue justice, in order that we may live up to our end of the covenant we've made with God. Also because doing justice is what's right. Today this verse also speaks to me of the need for environmental justice, lest the planet become so inhospitable that none of us can survive.1

I'm getting off track. Dear sir -- I'm assuming you're a sir, based on past experience -- I do object to your emailing me photographs of desecrated Jewish bodies tumbled into mass graves.The memories of those souls, the memories of all six million, deserve better. You also included photographs of Hamas and Hitler, I think trying to imply that support for Palestinians' human rights makes me a Nazi? 

I don't write much about Israel and Palestine these days. I don't feel that my voice adds anything to the conversation. I'd rather focus on co-creating liturgy with my Bayit hevre, reflecting on what might be helpful to others out of the grief journey of mourning my parents, and writing divrei Torah that speak to all whom I serve during these times of injustice, climate crisis, and rumbles of civil unrest.

But I do share my writing online under my real name, and my contact information is easy to find. Whether I'm writing about aspirations toward justice or the spiritual journey of burying a loved one, I attach my name to my words. (Which is why people like you can send hate mail calling me a kapo and accusing me of colluding with Nazis.) I notice your email to me is completely anonymous. 

It seems that you don't want to be held accountable for your words. Apparently you want to be hateful without repercussions, which suggests perhaps some insecurity about the stance you're taking. But more than that, hiding behind anonymity to send hate mail reveals cowardice and a profound lack of dan l'chaf z'chut / giving the benefit of the doubt. Go do some mussar work, friend.

"When people show you who they are, believe them," as the saying goes. I don't know who you are, but your choice to send anonymous hate mail tells me a lot about who you've chosen to be. The best response I know is to speak more, write more, and stand up more for all who are marginalized. Thanks for reminding me to double down on becoming the justice-seeker I aspire to be.


Image from Mr. Bingo's "hate mail project," which pokes fun at the very notion of hate mail. 

1. As Talmud reminds us, God's words are multivalent. Torah contains an infinity of meaning for us to unearth as we evolve and grow. Like my friend and teacher R. Mike Moskowitz teaches, our task is uncovering and discovering what was already there -- this applies whether we're talking about trans issues in Torah, or inviting Torah's wisdom to drive our work toward climate justice. (Relatedly, allow me to recommend R. Danya Ruttenberg's post Jews for Exegesis.) This is how we participate in revelation's continuing flow.

(Reproductive) Justice and the dream of sky: Mishpatim 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, is full of justice-related mitzvot. Like: if you dig a pit and you don't cover it, and somebody's animal falls in and dies, you’re responsible because your negligence caused its death. And: do not wrong or oppress the stranger. And:

"When parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning." (Ex. 21:22)

Let’s unpack this. If someone causes a miscarriage, they owe damages. Damages, not "they get sent to a city of refuge." Elsewhere Torah teaches that in order to stop the cycle of retaliatory violence, we are to establish cities of refuge, where someone who has unintentionally committed murder can go and not be subject to blood revenge. But that’s not mentioned here, only the payment of a fine. Ergo, in Torah’s view, causing a pregnancy to end is neither manslaughter nor murder.

Torah is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. So where does our tradition take this? Mishna (c. 200) teaches that in the case of a difficult labor where the pregnant person's life is at risk, do what we would now call a D&C. In the Talmud (c. 600), R. Yehuda HaNasi holds that a fetus is considered as a limb or an organ in the pregnant person's body until it draws first breath. 

Mainstream Judaism has long taught that if there is danger to the pregnant person's life, abortion is not only permitted but required. This is often rooted in teachings about a rodef, a pursuer who would cause harm. If the fetus would cause harm, we privilege the life of the pregnant person, again until first breath. R. Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006) argues that abortion is permitted even if the danger is "only" emotional distress or harm. 

Our religious worldview is entirely different from the one that has criminalized not only abortion, in half of this country, but now even miscarriage. According to their understanding of their religion, a zygote has the same rights as the person in whose womb it is carried. It's not my job as a rabbi to have opinions about when some Christians think "life begins." But it is my job to be clear about three things.

  1. Judaism teaches otherwise. (See this week's Torah portion.)
  2. Torah also teaches not to wrong or oppress the stranger. (Again, see this week's Torah portion.) Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy is a profound wrong.
  3. No one should be able to impose their theology on anyone else's body. 

Granted, NPR reports that more than half of Republicans nationwide believe that this should be a Christian nation. I’m not thrilled that a majority of one of our major political parties would prefer that our nation be a theocracy. But this is where we are. 

Massachusetts feels fairly safe. Our rights are protected by our state laws... unless the federal government enacts a nationwide ban on reproductive healthcare. (Which the religious right hopes to do.) But even if we feel safe here and now, Torah instructs us to concern ourselves with the needs of the widow and the orphan and the stranger -- in Torah's paradigm, the people with the least cultural capital and the least power.

In our day, that could mean asylum-seekers, refugees, people who are trans or gender-non-conforming. Black and indigenous people of color. People living in poverty. People living in prison. People living in forced-birth states, who don't have the means to take time off to travel to another state where their right to their own body is still intact. (Also the Christian right may be trying to make that illegal too.)

Right after SCOTUS gutted Roe, I saw a lot of people posting on Facebook that if anyone needed to "vacation" in Massachusetts, they would open their homes. “Come on up, stay with me, I'll drive you to... wherever you need to go ...and offer you a hot water bottle and some tea afterwards.” Come "vacation" in a free state! Wink, wink. 

It was a clear expression of care. And, I think, of rage at the Supreme Court and at our own impotence. It was also basically useless. What are the odds that someone in a forced-birth state would ever see (or trust) a FB post from someone they didn't know? 

You’ve all heard me quote Mariame Kaba’s wisdom that “hope is a discipline.” She also reminds us not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to working toward justice. Better to channel our energy and resources toward people who are already doing the work.

So maybe instead of offering a guest room on Facebook, we can donate to the National Council of Jewish Women, who maintain a Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. Or: support the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging abortion restrictions in courthouses and state legislatures across the country.

Or donate to Sistersong, the Black organization that coined the term “reproductive justice:” the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Sistersong is the largest national multi-ethnic Reproductive Justice collective.

Reproductive justice is a much broader framework than simply “the right to choose,” or even the right to choose plus access to safe reliable healthcare. It’s about everything: access to food, affordable shelter, education, ending carceral foster care, ending gun violence, and more. All of these are part of what it would really look like to rear children in a just world.

And we can take heart that the majority of Americans do agree that bodily autonomy is a core human right. In 2022, voters in Kansas overwhelmingly opposed a constitutional amendment that would have removed that state's protection of a pregnant person's fundamental right to autonomy. That took a lot of on-the-ground effort: knocking on doors, fighting misinformation, and one-on-one conversations. But that’s what works. 

In our ancestral story, after leaving Egypt we spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. There were plenty of setbacks, and some people wanted to turn back. But we made it to Sinai, to covenant and revelation. These post-Roe years may feel like wilderness, but we can't give up. We have to keep trying to build a world of greater justice. We owe that to future generations, and to those who have it worse than we do.

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Also in this week's Torah portion, there’s the verse we've been singing this evening. This is the scene where Moses and Aaron and seventy elders ascend to heaven and behold "the God of Israel -- under whose feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the very sky for purity." (Ex. 24:10)  And they eat and drink at a banquet with God.

From the mundane to the sublime. Here's what to do if your ox gores somebody, and here's a vision of the Holy One of Blessing across a floor of sapphire sky. This juxtaposition teaches that the loftiest moments of our spiritual lives are not separate from the earthly details of ethical living. They can't be. "Spiritual life" that doesn't ask our ethical behavior is meaningless.

In that vision our ancestors saw something like "sapphire brickwork" -- perhaps a reminder of the bricks we slaved to build under Pharaoh's oppressive regime. But now the "bricks" are the blue of the sky itself: infinite, open, free. We’ve gone from the compression of mud to brick, to the sky's wide-open expanse. What a beautiful metaphor for the journey from oppression to liberation, from rights stripped away to human dignity wholly honored. May we build that world speedily and soon.


I’ll close with words from poet Aurora Levin Morales:



when you go out and when you return. In times of mourning
and in times of joy. Inscribe them on your doorposts,
embroider them on your garments, tattoo them on your shoulders,
teach them to your children, your neighbors, your enemies,
recite them in your sleep, here in the cruel shadow of empire:
Another world is possible...  

[I]magine winning.  This is your sacred task.
This is your power. Imagine
every detail of winning, the exact smell of the summer streets
in which no one has been shot, the muscles you have never
unclenched from worry, gone soft as newborn skin,
the sparkling taste of food when we know
that no one on earth is hungry, that the beggars are fed,
that the old man under the bridge and the woman
wrapping herself in thin sheets in the back seat of a car,
and the children who suck on stones,
nest under a flock of roofs that keep multiplying their shelter.
Lean with all your being towards that day
when the poor of the world shake down a rain of good fortune
out of the heavy clouds, and justice rolls down like waters...

Imagine rape is unimaginable. Imagine war is a scarcely credible rumor.
That the crimes of our age, the grotesque inhumanities of greed,

the sheer and astounding shamelessness of it, the vast fortunes
made by stealing lives, the horrible normalcy it came to have,
is unimaginable to our heirs, the generations of the free.

Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing.  Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way...
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
may live


 Aurora Levins Morales


This is the d'var I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

Shared with gratitude to the NCJW for their collection of reproductive justice resources, and also to my advance readers for sermon suggestions.

Music, music, music

Every night
I tuck my teen in bed

and close his door, humming
the lullaby you used to sing.

Most kids of his generation
don't know "A Bushel

and a Peck." 1950:
you were glamorous,

flirting with the bugler
you would later marry.

I don't think he remembers
"put another nickel in,

in the nickelodeon,"
though you sang it

when he was swaddled
in velcro-edged blankets.

Another top hit
from when you were fourteen,

the age he's
barreling toward



Songs that didn't make it into this draft of this poem include "Sisters, Sisters" (White Christmas, 1954 -- the year my parents married), "Annie Mae, Where Are You Going," (origins unknown, though I suspect it's a camp song from the late 40s or early 50s), and "The Billboard Song" which exists in many folk versions, though of course I'm attached to the one Mom used to sing. Sometimes I wonder which songs from my son's childhood -- or, perhaps, from mine -- will delight and comfort him in the (hopefully distant) future when I'm gone.

From a distance

In the photograph attached to the email that I just got, they're both in the living room. Sitting comfortably, talking with family. It's an action shot, not a candid, which makes it seem all the more real. I can hear their voices. They could be right there! I know they're not. But I wish they were.

One of the things I never anticipated about mourning my parents is the role distance would play. I've lived two thousand miles away from them since I was seventeen. (I'm going on forty-eight.) Most of the time, in my adult life, their presence was at a distance. And that was fine. It was normal.

It was comforting, knowing they were there. I knew that when I got off the plane, one of them would be in the cellphone parking lot awaiting my call. I knew that their living room would still be just as it had been, and so would the pad of paper in the kitchen awaiting grocery lists...

It was comforting, knowing that some things never change. Except of course they do.

Someone else inhabits that house now. Treasures become trash: the clothes we didn't take went to Goodwill, the books sold to a used books store by the pound. I've had moments of wondering: what is it all for? With or without illness, life ends, and what's left can feel so small.

That's a whole mood, as the kids say. It's become a familiar one, these last few years. It's also grief talking. I don't feel it as often as I did a year ago, but it's not gone. Letting myself feel grief, while still holding on to my certainty that love and care matter even if we're temporary -- that's the work.

On the Jewish calendar it's not yet Adar (aka parental yahrzeit season). But on the secular calendar we're approaching February vacation week. In 2019, we spent that week saying goodbye to Mom. In 2022, we spent it saying goodbye to Dad. Each time, they died a few days after we visited.

We're returning to Texas for a few days in February. It will be my first time back that's not for a funeral. From here it's easy to slip into feeling like they could still be alive, just far away. But that fiction won't hold when I arrive in a Texas where they will no longer be there to greet me. 




our children have to learn
we need libraries
we accept children

I felt so bad for that boy
taped to the cross with
duct tape

keep us safe from people
whose parents ban books



I am new to the art of erasure poems (and am deeply inspired by Dave Bonta's erasure poems -- here's a recent one that's particularly excellent.)  But I found myself struggling for words this morning. 

Language itself becomes debased, meaning comes unmoored, when people repeatedly insist on things that are not true. This form felt right today. It's my attempt to make meaning out of gibberish. 

(The original text claims to be Sarah Huckabee's "rebuttal" from last night. If you want to read her words, you can easily find a transcript of what she had to say. I won't reprint her words here.)

While I'm here: trans rights are human rights, gender affirming care saves lives, banning books is grotesque, and God is a far vaster reality than what any single religious tradition might claim. 

Updated to add: Thank you to the reader who let me know that I've been hornswoggled -- this is not in fact the text of her rebuttal, it's satire. The fact that I couldn't tell satire from reality does say something about the world we're living in, and about the degradation of truth in an era of misinformation, and about how easy it is to get caught up in the digital outrage machine. I've been reading on Twitter about horrendous anti-trans bills in Missouri and elsewhere, and the ugly rhetoric and triumphalist theology that underpins those, and I was all too ready to take this satire as fact. I should have better media literacy than that -- I should have searched for a corroborating source before getting so angry. I apologize.

Then again, I do like the poem I came up with, so there's that. 

A Song For Those Coming Through the Sea: Beshalach 5783 / 2022

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The Song at the Sea is one of the oldest poems in Torah, and its beauty in the scroll is like nothing else. Some see brickwork, an echo of the labors of slavery. Some see waves rolling in and receding, a reminder of how the sea parted and then rushed back in. The waves, in turn, evoke the midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav who bravely stepped into the waters and began walking forward. When the waves reached his lips, that’s when the waters parted. This is a story about taking a risk and making a leap of faith toward a better life. 

Every displaced person, asylum-seeker, and refugee could tell us that story. Emerging from circumstances most of us can scarcely imagine, they step into the waters. The act of fleeing home speaks of a situation so dire that staying put is no longer a viable option. In the words of poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” No one flees unless home is a Narrow Place so tight and terrible that fleeing becomes the best choice.

One of my favorite teachings about crossing the Sea comes from Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezofsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe. He writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body, and the highest of these is the emunah of the body. That surprised me; I expected mind to be considered “higher.” Nope. He says when we feel emunah in our bodies, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we become able to sing the Song at the Sea.

The Slonimer knows that taking a leap of faith changes us. Inertia would be easier. Giving up would be easier. Leaping into the unknown asks just enough bravery to take the first step. In the act of stepping into the sea comes transformation: the capacity to sing a new song. The Slonimer says that when we take the leap of emunah and walk into the water, Shechinah dwells in us – God’s presence is in us, in our very bones.  And that’s what enables us to sing a song of redemption, a song of hope for something better than whatever we knew before. 

Our ancient spiritual ancestors couldn’t sing the Song until they felt emunah in their bones. And they couldn’t feel emunah in their bones until they stepped into the sea. Which means they had to step into the sea before they felt ready. They had to take the plunge without knowing for sure what lay ahead and whether or not the water would part. On a smaller scale, we all have moments like that, on the cusp of change: marriage or divorce, birth or death, choosing a new beginning. There’s a moment when we have to decide to just – step into the sea, ready or not.

In 1939 my grandparents fled Hitler with my three year old mother in tow. I imagine it was the hardest thing they had ever done. When they arrived on these shores, other Jews from Eastern Europe took care of them: helped them find a place to stay, a way to learn English, the help they needed until they could get on their feet. That’s a kind of kindness that can’t be paid back, only paid forward. Even if they repaid every penny (and maybe they did), the repayment couldn’t mean as much to the givers as being welcomed had meant when my family needed it.

How do we pay it forward? To me the answer is painfully obvious: we pay it forward by welcoming the stranger. We pay it forward by meeting the needs of of the displaced person, the asylum-seeker, the refugee. Every Shabbat (or every day) we sing Mi Chamocha, our song of redemption. We need to let that song galvanize us to fuel the song of justice. The song of human dignity. The song of welcome. The song of “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Each year at Pesach we recount how we fled Egypt after ten terrible plagues with only what we could carry. We eat matzah: the hardtack of slavery, and the waybread of our journey to freedom. For us, that story is symbolic, a metaphor for breaking free from life’s tight places. For displaced people and asylum-seekers and refugees, the Exodus is now. We know the heart of the refugee because our ancestral story – the one we tell at seder, the ritual practiced by 70% of American Jews – is a story of becoming refugees. Our obligations to today’s refugees are clear.

When we fled the Narrow Place, a “mixed multitude” came also, to teach that freedom isn’t just for us. Dignity, justice, and safety aren’t just for us. They are the birthright of every human being. Including asylum-seekers camped at the borders of our nation, and refugees fleeing war and devastation, and parents and children fleeing gender-based violence. During the Shoah, the United States shamefully refused entry to refugees and asylum-seekers – many were then slaughtered. We owe it to their memories to do better now by people in need of safe haven.

It takes profound emunah to step into the sea not knowing if the waters will part. (Or into a rickety boat, or the back of a pickup truck, or trudging on foot…) In our ancestral story, stepping into the Sea opens us to an experience of God that begins to change us from freed slaves into the Jewish people. For 100 million displaced people in the world today, stepping into the Sea is just… reality. Jewish values call us to welcome them with sustenance, and clothing, and homes, and safety, and justice, and dignity, and hope. That’s the song that I think is worth singing.


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