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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."

To Be In Community: Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, brings us to the end of Exodus. The first part, Vayakhel, begins:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל - And Moshe yak’hel / convened the whole edah / congregation of the children of Israel... (Ex. 35:1)

The word yak'hel shares a root with the word kahal, community: it’s almost saying that Moshe “communified” them. Meanwhile, edah (translated here as congregation) can also mean witness. To me this implies that bearing witness to each other and to each others' needs is part of what makes a community, or maybe what turns a congregation into a community.  The second part of our double Torah portion, Pekudei, begins:

אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת - These were the p’kudei / accountings of the Mishkan of witnessing... (Ex. 38:21)

Pakad can mean to take note of or to record, and what follows is a record of what went into the mishkan and the ark: the gold, purple, and crimson yarns, acacia wood and fine linen. It’s a list of the freewill offerings from everyone whose heart was moved. But this isn’t just about the physical structure; it’s also about building community. Being in community asks us to really see each others’ needs, and in response, to give freely of our stuff and our skill.

Mishkan is a word we're going to be hearing a lot of, for a while. It's often translated as "tabernacle;" it’s the portable sanctuary our ancestors built to carry in the desert. Mishkan shares a root with shekhunah (neighbohood) and Shekhinah (the Presence of God dwelling within and among us.) “Let them make Me a sacred place so that I may dwell within them.” (Exodus 25:8) The word for dwell shares a root with mishkan and Shekhinah too.

Here it's called a Mishkan of Edut, a holy place of witnessing. There’s that theme of bearing witness again. Torah is telling us that if we want to constitute community, each of us has to bring whatever we've got. And I think Torah's reiterating that a core function of a community is to bear witness: to see each other, and take action to help each other. Once we see someone’s need, we have to take it seriously and try to meet it in whatever ways we can.

I'm grateful to the architects of our synagogue building who ensured that people in wheelchairs -- and people with strollers -- aren't barred from entry or from coming onto the bimah. Most of us who live long enough will need mobility aids eventually, so being all on one level helps everyone… but to me what matters is that we try  to meet each others’ needs whether or not we will ever share them. That’s what it means to be in community.

We make sure there’s gluten-free food, and a non-alcoholic beverage option, at kiddush and at seder. We use our sound system in the building, and enable closed captioning in Zoom services. We ensure that there are changing tables in all the bathrooms. These are all ways that we try to take care of each other. Even if some of us don’t experience those needs, we do our best for those who do. That’s what it means to be in community.

In Jewish legal thinking, there’s a concept called kal v’homer. (In Latin this is called a fortiori, going from the weaker case to the stronger one.) For instance, in Torah Moshe says to God, “my own people won’t listen to me; how much less likely it is that Pharaoh would listen?!” If it’s our responsibility to meet each others’ relatively minor needs, how much more so is it our responsibility to meet each others’ needs in matters of survival and human dignity?

Across the US, trans and gender-non-conforming people are under threat. Political violence and eliminationism are on the rise. (By eliminationism, I mean the belief that a group of people should be eradicated.) There are nearly 370 bills on the table targeting trans people. Thank God, not in Massachusetts – but if proponents of those bills rise to national power they could harm trans folks here, just as they could erase our right to reproductive healthcare. 

Those who seek to take away rights tend not to stop after taking rights or self-determination away from a single group. In the early 1900s, American eugenicists began sterilizing disabled women. By the end of that century, eugenics movements in this country had sterilized 70,000 immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, poor white people, people with disabilities, and survivors of rape and sexual assault. Our eugenics policies even inspired Hitler's. 

Meanwhile, transphobia has become a recruiting tool for today's neo-Nazis. Where there is willingness to dehumanize any group of people, there is increased readiness to dehumanize others too. Look at Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary: proudly "illiberal" and Christian nationalist. He's also anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, opposed to the "mixing" of races. Or, closer to home: white supremacist Nick Fuentes recently proclaimed that Judaism has "got to go."

As Dr. King taught, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is a practical truth, because injustice tends to metastasize. It’s also a spiritual truth. We’re all connected. Either we all have the right to life, self-determination, and human dignity, or none of us do. If there’s a movement to take rights away from any of us, it impacts all of us. If there’s a movement to “wipe out” any of us, it impacts all of us. This too is what it means to be in community.

Every time I’m reminded that some people want to “eliminate” other groups of people, my heart breaks again. And yet my spirit is lifted by genuine allyship: when non-Jews resist antisemitism, when people without a uterus stand up for bodily autonomy, when cisgender people protect the dignity and rights of trans people. (I wrote earlier this week that it’s our job to build a mishkan of safety.) Standing up for each other is part of what it means to be in community.

At the end of our doubled Torah portion we get the verse we’ve been singing tonight: 

For the cloud of God was on the mishkan by day, and fire was there by night 

In the eyes of all the house of Israel, in all of their journeyings. (Exodus 40:38)

The mishkan becomes a kind of beacon. Atop it and within it there’s a cloud of divine glory during the day, and a blazing fire by night. That’s where the book of Exodus ends.

Even without that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, our community can be a beacon, too. When we meet each others’ needs, when we engage in learning and prayer and justice together, we invite Shekhinah in. We create a community where the divine presence dwells within us and among us. Then the light of our mitzvot serves as our pillar of fire, our ner tamid / eternal lamp, shining our way out of the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. 


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

Shared with gratitude to my Bayit hevruta partners who talked with me about community and witnessing, to brainstorming partners on Jwitter, and to the historian friends in my pocket. 

Not standing idly by


Art by Steve Silbert.

... In Torah’s time we built the mishkan with our own hands, following divine instructions to create something holy. Today we build our systems of צֶדֶק / tzedek (justice) and צדקה / tzedakah (righteous giving) when we bring Torah’s ethical blueprints to life. We build a world worthy of God when we refuse to stand idly by as our fellow human beings are harmed. (Lev. 19:16

Trans and gender-non-conforming people are under threat in the United States. Political violence and eliminationism are on the rise. The anti-trans legislation risk map blares red with alarm. There are nearly 370 bills on the table targeting trans people. I’m a cisgender woman; I’m not at risk. But I owe it to those who are at risk to stand against anti-trans bigotry and harm.

In the days of the mishkan everyone brought what they had. Those who had gold, those who had acacia, those who had blue and purple and crimson yarn – they brought whatever they could. Today we each need to bring whatever we can to the table to build a mishkan of safety for trans and gender-non-conforming members of our communities, and all communities...

I was honored to write this week's Torah post for Bayit's Builders Blog. It's part of our ongoing series of essays exploring Torah through the lens of social justice and building a world worthy of the divine. Read the whole post here: A Mishkan of Safety.

(Shared with gratitude to Steve Silbert for the artwork, and to Erin Reed of Erin In The Morning for her reporting.)




be a prayer wheel
be a bicycle, playing cards
tucked between the spokes

reciting endlessly
please God please
tick tick whirr

be the ocean
waves rushing out
and surging in

undertow pulling prayer
to the depths and back
tumbled like glass

be a processor
running a subroutine
of constant yearning

do this for years
all the days
of your life

be an oyster
turning what hurts
into a pearl


Old books


These are not our books. But they could be.

Miles of books. Paper bags full of books. Boxes full of books. Loaded one by one into a car and driven away, or in some cases stashed in the cupboard labeled "genizah / for burial." In recent days I've been meeting up with my synagogue board president to sift through the books that had accumulated in our storage room, books that had piled up in every office, books that had been dropped off at the door anonymously like those extra zucchini that get hidden in people's cars or left on their front steps.

It's common, at synagogues. (Churches too, maybe?) We accumulate books the way children accumulate memories. And some of these books are themselves precious memories. And some are useful. But many of ours are now Goodwill-bound. I wonder what the local Goodwill staff must think, sorting this vast and sudden influx of books about Judaism. Books on Jewish history and thought. Books on Israel. Books from the 1950s on the critical challenges facing American Jewry "today." 

Old college textbooks from religion classes. (Okay, a few of them were mine. Will I ever again need that textbook on the Protestant Reformation? Probably not.) Hardbound Hebrew-English dictionaries. Old translations of Jewish texts, typeset in tiny print. We also have a full synagogue library packed with books that no one ever borrows, and that's in addition to these stacks of tomes and piles of texts. Someone dies or moves away, and next thing we know another pile of books has sprouted...

Old siddurim and holy books go in the cupboard to be buried in the sanctified ground of our cemetery. Once they are tattered from long use, we treat them with reverence and lay them to rest along with our beloved dead. But the secular books get stacked and bagged, or boxed, and hauled to the car, and taken away. It's hard to let go of books. We're the People of the Book! And yet there are so many books that haven't been touched in years. Books we'd forgotten we had. Books we just don't need.

I like to imagine some Jewish college student, maybe, browsing the bookshelves at Goodwill and exclaiming at some of these finds. I always loved finding Judaica in used-books stores or on the bookshelf at a thrift store. It felt like a little gift from the Universe: I see you.  A reminder that Jews have lived in all kinds of places... including the small towns around New England around which my beloved ex and I used to drive, searching for quirky secondhand things like those old church pews

Now the shul storeroom is manageable. We can find the Pesach dishes, the yarhzeit candles, the box of graggers for Purim. Some of my colleagues are establishing a "no donated books" policy -- all of our shelves overflow. It makes me a little bit sad, but I get it. I hope these books land in the hands of people who want them. And having joined in cleaning out my own parents' possessions after their deaths, I'm aware of how our objects persist, moving through the world long after we are gone.

Absence and Presence: Tetzaveh and Shabbat Zachor 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, contains instructions from God about all kinds of sacrificial practices. Here are instructions on how to anoint Aaron and his sons as priests, how to make their special garments, and how to ordain them. There are instructions for daily offerings, and where to go to hear God's voice (at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, where community convenes.)

The Hasidic master known as the Kedushat Levi (aka R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 1740-1809) asks a question common to our sages: why is Moses not mentioned in this parsha? These instructions are given to Moshe, but his name never appears. It doesn't even begin, "And God spoke to Moses, saying..." which is a pretty common frame in this part of Torah. What's up with that?

And his answer is: in order to ordain Aaron and supervise everything in this parsha, Moshe has to serve as High Priest, a role that doesn't exist yet because Aaron will be the first. Kedushat Levi says that when Moshe is filling this role, he engages in what our mystics call bittul. He lets go of ego and makes himself transparent to become a clear channel through which God can flow. 

Moshe pours himself into service so thoroughly that he isn't even named in this parsha... and he doesn't need to be. His unnamed presence so profoundly suffuses this story that "he" doesn't need to be "here" at all. We find Moshe in this Torah portion precisely in not-finding-him in this Torah portion. His name is absent, because his presence is so... present. It's almost a kind of koan, isn't it? 

Here's another: today is Shabbat Zachor, "the Shabbat of Memory." There's an extra Torah reading for today about how Amalek attacked us as we left Egypt. Amalek attacked from behind, targeting the weak, elders and children -- so Torah instructs us to "blot out" that name. But how do we blot out a name by recounting it? If we're naming Amalek, aren't we thereby remembering?

Here's my best understanding this year. Amalek's name is in Torah. Our people's spiritual history doesn't get erased. Where we've come from and what we've been through are part of who we are. But we're meant to X out this memory, to strikethrough, to repudiate the injustice and harm for which it stands. We remember Amalek even as we aspire not to be defined by traumatic memory. 

The name Amalek has come to mean antisemitism personified: no longer a specific person or nation, but the hateful and age-old force of antisemitism itself. It implies all who hate us and want to destroy us. Like Haman -- understood as Amalek's descendant both physically and spiritually -- which is why on Purim we gnash graggers to blot out that name. His name is spoken, and we also X it out.

Speaking of names (Moshe and Amalek, unspoken and spoken) -- in Megillat Esther, God's name never appears. Usually when The Name appears, we substitute Adonai or Hashem or some other word that points toward God's ineffable un-sayable-ness. But in this scroll, it's not that we replace The Name with anything -- God's name isn't even there. A book of Tanakh without God?!

I mean, my answer is no, that's not what this is. Yes, salvation from Haman's plot to exterminate us appears to come entirely via human hands. But remember how R. Levi Yitzchak taught that in this week's parsha Moshe is so present we don't need to name him. I would argue that here God is the same way. God is everywhere in this story, so integral that it goes without saying.

And if divine presence is so woven into the Esther story that it goes without saying, then the same must be true for us in our moment now. Even if antisemitism is on the rise, even if modern life might sometimes feel the opposite of holy, God is not absent. Compassion, and justice, and love are not absent. They're everywhere, if only we have eyes to see them... and hands to do them.

The Kedushat Levi also writes:

Each of us must wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in their heart... Since each of us is also a small world, when the power of evil in each of us arises (then) Amalek is still in the world.

For him, Amalek becomes an internal force -- that within us which draws us to do the wrong thing, or keeps us from doing the right one. I love that Hasidic move of taking Torah inside, making it about our own hearts. And... we always need to balance the inner work with outward action. We are called to transform and reshape our inner Amalek so that we can act. 

Mordechai reminds Esther, "If you don't save our people, someone else will -- but don't imagine that your inaction will save you, and who knows, maybe this was the reason you became queen in the first place!" It's Esther's job to step up and save her people because she's in a position to do it. Our sages call this divine providence: the hidden hand of God at work.

In a month we'll read in the Passover haggadah that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been liberated from Egypt. What if each of us could also take on the obligation to see ourselves as if we were Esther? What if we're planted in this place and time precisely so we can do something... and after Shabbes, what will our next action inspired by Esther's bravery be?


Shared with gratitude to the Bayit board of directors for weekly learning together, which this week sparked my d'varling for Shabbat. Cross-posted to the Congregation Beth Israel From the Rabbi blog.