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Yizkor For Our World: Yom Kippur 5784 / 2023



Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.15 AMOne of the most powerful books I’ve read recently is Allison Stine’s novel Trashlands, which takes place in the near future, after climate catastrophe. Many of the characters we meet work as “pluckers,” pulling plastic from the trash-choked rivers and woods. The creation of new plastic has been banned, and plastic now functions as currency, because it lasts forever.

Most poignantly, everyone we meet in Trashlands is named after a thing or a place that is gone – like the Ashkenazi Jewish custom of naming our children after our dead. Characters have names like Miami, and Shanghai, and New Orleans, and Coral. Imagine a world in which coral is a distant memory.

Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.23 AMWe may not need to imagine it for long. Earlier this summer the oceans off the southern coast of Florida clocked in at 101 degrees. Scientists were literally racing to save samples of different species of coral by removing them from the sea and sequestering them in tanks on land.

As I read in the New York Times, “The world’s oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the additional heat unleashed by people burning fossil fuels and razing forests. [As of this summer] about 44 percent of the global ocean [was] in a heat wave.” In water that hot, coral can’t survive. 

Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.30 AMSerge Schmemann, a member of the New York Times editorial board, argued recently in an op-ed that It Is No Longer Possible To Escape What We’ve Done To Ourselves. His essay begins by describing Canadian wildfire smoke – remember when the sun looked red and air quality was so bad we were told to stay indoors?

“This has been the summer from climate hell all across Earth, when it ceased being possible to escape or deny what we have done to our planet and ourselves,” he writes.

That same week, that same newspaper covered the first Presidential debate in which most of the candidates refused to give a straight answer on whether they “believe in” the climate crisis. One argued that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” The Times was quick to note that there is no scientific disagreement: the climate crisis is real and it is worsening. But what do we do when so many deny the existence of (much less responsibility for) the most significant existential crisis we have ever faced? 

One answer is, we grieve. We grieve the rising seas, the countless species that will vanish, the beauty our world is going to lose – from majestic polar bears to grand reefs of spectacular coral. (And the less “charismatic” ones, too, the plants and insects and creatures that don’t fit our definition of beautiful but are still part of the web of life.)

We grieve the reality that a significant subset of society doesn’t believe that our collective actions over the last few hundred years have radically changed our planet. And we grieve the human beings who already suffer climate change: the unthinkably vast wildfires, unprecedented heat domes breaking record after record, rising seas everyplace in the world where there are seas. Those impacts are felt most by those who are poorest: who can’t afford to move, or to access air-conditioning, or to buy clean drinking water.

Climate grief is the ache brought on by awareness of the losses that come with our warming planet: from the extinction of countless species across the globe, to places becoming inhospitable to what used to be their native flora and fauna (including us), to the large-scale displacement and death of living beings (including us).

And I suspect I am preaching to the proverbial choir this morning, because I know how many of you in this room have come to me to talk about climate grief and how to live with it. 

Screen Shot 2023-09-02 at 12.23.00 PMFor me the first step in any kind of grief is naming it and being honest about how much it hurts. Grief is not linear. It ebbs and flows according to its own mysterious tides. Sometimes it ties us in knots. Sometimes it threatens to wash us away. Sometimes it leaves us spent and gasping on the shore. 

Judaism has good tools for certain kinds of grief. I think our tradition is really good at death, actually. Is that a funny thing to say? It’s true, though. I am in awe of our traditions around death and mourning. They’re incredible spiritual technologies.

The deathbed vidui, the words of release we speak at the end of life – akin to the vidui prayers we say today. Our biodegradable caskets and shrouds, because we all return to earth’s embrace. The palpable finality of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands. Sitting shiva, taking a week to live with our grief and let it wash over us while others bring food and community and prayer to our door. Ritually emerging after the week is over, walking around the block, and coming back in through a different door – because the week of shiva has changed us. Reciting the memorial prayers of Yizkor four times a year, when we go beneath our tallitot and remember our dead. I love that our traditions don’t pretend away loss, or the reality that our lives are finite. 

I don’t know what tools to bring to bear on the ongoing losses of climate grief. It’s one thing to mourn a person, or even a lot of people. But to mourn countless plants and insects and animals, to mourn the loss of human lives, to mourn the burning taiga or the boiling seas? I don’t think we have good tools for that. We may need to create them. 

Here’s what I do know: loss is a fundamental part of human life, and our work is to feel it fully even as we refuse to let it wholly define us. The fact that our lives are finite is part of what gives them meaning. And the sacred task of remembrance is part of our inheritance as a people. The word Yizkor means “[God] Remembers.” In the Yizkor prayers we say four times a year we ask God to remember each of our beloved dead. And we pledge acts of tzedakah, acts of justice and righteousness, in their memory. 

Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.38 AMThis year in addition to our loved ones we might ask God to remember the ivory-billed woodpecker. The splendid poison frog of western Panama. The freshwater fish of Lake Lanao in the Phillipines. The bramble cay melomys from Australia. The western black rhinoceros in central and west Africa. We name them and we remember them, and we pledge acts of justice and righteousness in their memory. 

And this year in addition to our loved ones we might ask God to remember the victims of the Lahaina wildfires this summer, and the victims of deadly flooding in Pakistan last year, and the two million deaths that the United Nations says were caused by extreme weather over the last half-century. We can’t possibly name them all, but we can remember them in the aggregate, and we can pledge acts of justice and righteousness in their memory.

Maybe we pledge acts of environmental tzedakah, like installing solar panels, or buying things secondhand, or supporting the creation of the Zero Carbon Renovation Fund to help make buildings in our state more energy-efficient. (There’s a half-sheet handout at the back of the room from Western Mass Dayenu full of climate teshuvah ideas. Take one with you later today.)

ChildrenEarlier this summer, my son and I visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Most crushing for me was the Hall of Children, a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children slaughtered by the Nazis. Sparks of light shine like distant stars. A constant litany of childrens’ names is read, and images appear and disappear like ghosts.

Maybe we need a place like that for grieving and remembering the victims of climate-change-fueled wildfires and floods, extreme heat and rising seas. The climate crisis isn’t a function of hatred or bigotry the way the Shoah was, but like the Shoah, its losses are already so vast I can’t process them. And we know that more is coming.

Screen Shot 2023-09-20 at 9.20.36 AMWhen I think about those who ignore the scientific realities of the climate crisis, I feel despair. But then I remind myself that Ruth Messenger, when she spoke here last month, said, “Despair is not an action plan.” She was talking about saving democracy, but it’s equally true of our response to the climate crisis.

And I remind myself of Mariame Kaba’s dictum that “hope is a discipline.” It’s something we have to cultivate. And the way to counter despair is to do something: to act with empathy, to make ethical choices, to care for our planet and all its inhabitants. We don’t know what impact our actions will have, but we know that inaction can’t be the answer. 

Yom Kippur comes each year to remind us that though we inevitably wander off course, we can course-correct. We can aspire to make teshuvah and be better tomorrow than we were today. Honestly I can’t think of much that’s more hopeful than that. No matter who we’ve been, we can be better than we were, if we do the work. That’s the powerful core of hope at Yom Kippur’s heart. I think that hope is central to our whole religious tradition.

Here in New England Yom Kippur comes as the season is turning. This year we’re just a few days past the autumn equinox. It’s officially fall. The light is changing. This half of our planet is beginning its long slow turn away from the life-giving warmth of the sun. Soon we’ll reach the year’s first killing frost. I don’t know if the plants can tell that their end is coming. But we can. These days, along with the inevitable poignancy of autumn, I also feel the poignancy of uncertainty: what will fall be like here as our climate shifts? I take comfort in knowing that the annual cycle of fall and spring will continue…  although I know that many species will not survive the transition to a warmer planet. 

But I also know that living things, given any opportunity, will try to thrive. One day last month I noticed a squash plant flowering in wild abundance, growing out of a crack of pavement outside the laundromat. Living beings want to live and grow. We yearn to flourish so that when we reach our natural end we’ve flowered and borne fruit in all the ways we can. At Yizkor we remember each life’s harvest of wisdom and presence. Saying Yizkor for our whole world means remembering and honoring the inherent value of every life on this earth… including the species that will not return.  

Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.45 AMI’ve talked before about different Jewish views on the afterlife. In my own theology, at the end of our lives our souls return to the Source from which we came. I imagine God lovingly gathering us in. I imagine perfect clarity and deep understanding and absolutely no pain. Maybe God also gathers in the souls of every species we lose. Maybe in the World to Come our souls reconnect surrounded by passenger pigeons and Tasmanian tigers and St. Helena Olive and Sigillaria trees

Death strips away everything that’s extraneous. And it turns out that an awful lot is extraneous. Our to-do lists, our possessions, our frustrations – all of that falls away, in the end. Death returns us to our deepest selves: we are beings who love, who yearn, who ache for meaning. When the time comes to die, that’s who we are. And when the time comes to live – are we brave enough to live that way?

Let us love and yearn and ache for our fragile planet. Let us live not despite climate grief, but with it: feeling the poignancy it brings to every moment, and resolving in every way we can to make teshuvah in our relationship with the earth. I said on Rosh Hashanah that whatever we do won’t feel like “enough” when the world is as broken as it is. But compared with doing nothing, it’s everything. 

Screen Shot 2023-08-31 at 10.16.52 AMLet us grieve as we say Yizkor for every species we’ve lost and every species we will still lose, for every human being lost to the catastrophic floods and hurricanes and unprecedented wildfires that are all rapidly becoming our planet’s new normal… even as we cultivate our moral agency and our capacity for change.

And let our prayers of remembrance today remind us how lucky we are to be alive and even to lose. Because it would be so much worse not to love anything or anyone enough to feel loss when they go. The degree of grief we can experience is a sign of how deeply and wholly we can love.

Our lives are finite, but when we try to do right by each other and by our world we align ourselves with the flow of spirit and love. And our tradition teaches: that flow of spirit and love is eternal. More eternal even than plastic. When we transmit memory to the generations that will follow, we become part of something that is forever. And when we commit to deeds of justice and righteousness in memory of those who are gone, we uplift the best of who we can be.


This is the d'var Torah I gave before Yizkor at Yom Kippur morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)

Responsible: Kol Nidre 5784 / 2023




The cover of Maus, and part of an interior page of the comic bookArt Spiegelman’s Maus came out in 1986, and in 1992 it became the first graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to America, interwoven with the story of Spiegelman himself as an adult drawing forth his father’s stories. If you haven't read it, I commend it to you. It's extraordinary. 

Screen Shot 2023-09-19 at 2.24.40 PMLast year Maus was banned by school districts in several states, along with several other Holocaust-related titles. Spiegelman has joked, darkly, that schools want “a kinder, gentler, fuzzier Holocaust” to teach to children.

According to PEN America, book bans increased by 28% in American schools during the first half of last year, and most of the books challenged or banned deal with race and history, or have LGBTQ themes or protagonists. 

The impact is that books about the Shoah are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when Holocaust distortion and denial are on the rise. And books with LGBTQ themes and protagonists are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when a record number of anti-trans policies are being proposed and implemented around the country. And books about Black life are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when, according to the ADL, white supremacy propaganda has soared to an all-time high.

Someone holding a sign that says Black History IsThis summer Florida also banned some Holocaust textbooks, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in part for discussion of “special topics” prohibited by the state, such as “social justice.” Maybe not coincidentally, the Florida state board of education also mandated a new approach to American history. Florida’s new standards say that “students should learn that enslaved people ‘developed skills’ that ‘could be applied for their personal benefit.’” In other words, slavery wasn’t so bad. 

Meanwhile, the state legislature passed laws that “forbid teachers from offering instruction that makes students ‘feel guilt’ because of actions committed by others in the past.” And they’re not alone. Several other states have new laws that criminalize making students feel guilt or discomfort. (The Washington Post recently published an in-depth piece about the impacts of such a law on one teacher and her community.) 

A cartoon of someone sweeping dust under a rugWhen I read news stories like these, all I can think is: wow, is that not aligned with Jewish values. We don’t sweep our wrong actions under the rug and pretend they were never there. On the contrary, Judaism calls us to look clearly at our mis-steps and mistakes. Our tradition calls us to always be engaged in the work of teshuvah. And we can’t do that work if we ignore our mistakes in the first place. 

This is the opposite of the kind of national teshuvah I wish we could do. Germany, it turns out, has done amazing national teshuvah work. They have faced their nation’s darkest chapter, resolved to learn from it, and sought to reorient their society around what their Nazi history means they now owe to the world. (I learned about this from my friend and colleague R. Daniel Bogard’s Rosh Hashanah sermon Germany, T'shuvah, and the Obligations of our Pasts, also available as a video.)

Granted: Germany is now experiencing a rise in far-right groups, as are we. Which is a good reminder that the work of teshuvah is never one-and-done. But Germany at least made a national generational effort to reckon with their past.

Our nation has yet to collectively grapple with our responsibility to those harmed by slavery. Notice: I’m talking about responsibility rather than guilt. Because leaving aside all the tired jokes about Jewish mothers, I’m not interested in guilt. I think it’s much more productive to focus on responsibility. And Judaism has much to say about our responsibility to make someone whole after harm.

Illustration of a white hand handing an archaic piece of paper to a black handFor instance, R. Aryeh Bernstein writes that Jews, having received reparations from Egypt as we fled during the Exodus, must support reparations for others. And R. Sharon Brous cites the dispute between Hillel and Shammai about what to do when a house is built on a stolen beam: do you tear the house down and return the beam, or do you pay money to the original owner?

Though Hillel and Shammai disagree, as always, neither sage argues that the beam wasn’t really stolen, or that stealing it wasn’t so bad, or that it’s already stolen so there’s no point in trying to rectify the situation. Rabbi Brous writes: 

Our country was built on a stolen beam. More accurately, several million stolen beams. Only they weren’t beams. They were human beings. The palace they built was magnificent, but they have never been compensated for their labor.

There are conversations we can have about this, as Jews and as Americans. But the erasure of African American history makes it less likely that we’ll have those conversations, much less act on them. Just as the erasure of Jewish history means that nearly two-thirds of young Americans were unaware, when asked in 2020, that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. And the erasure of LGBTQ history and identities – in the words of Jared Fox at the ACLU, “When queer students are denied access to these stories, they lose a piece of their humanity.”

The erasure of our history hits me hard. And I also believe that the clarion call of Jewish tradition asks us to care about book bans and erasure of history even when our own stories aren’t at risk. 

"Love your other as yourself" written on a torah scroll, rainbow backgroundThat’s part of what it means to love the other as ourself: we must concern ourselves with the needs of others… including their history and lived experience. And when they are suffering, we are responsible to try to alleviate their suffering.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l wrote:

“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

My family immigrated to this country in the 20th century: none of my ancestors owned slaves. By and large, Jews didn’t cause these harms. But that doesn’t absolve us of our human responsibility to respond to their impacts. As the parent of a white teenager, I’m not worried that he’ll feel “guilty” when he learns American history. Honestly, I hope he’ll feel outraged by our nation’s worst moments, and proud of our best ones, and most of all, responsible to his fellow human beings.

Ee295025dfbba2da555e20f6521001a2Collective responsibility for and to each other is a core Jewish value. In Talmud (Shevuot 39a) we read, “כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה / Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” -- all Israel is responsible for and to each other. (Shevuot 39a) The word arevim means “mixed.” We're mixed up in each other. We’re not as separate as we think. In the words of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “We do not exist independently. We inter-are.”

“All of Israel is responsible for and to each other.” When that text was written, it made sense to say: all Jews are responsible for each other. Life was more insular then. We weren't allowed to be citizens, we couldn't own land, we were banned from most trades. Of course our sages were concerned with our responsibility for and to each other within our own community.

But in today's paradigm, I think we need to expand the sense of “us.” All humanity is bound up together. The whole planet is bound up together. And the biggest challenges that face us know no borders. The climate crisis. White supremacy, Christian nationalism, antisemitism. The sowing of mistrust in elections and in the justice system. The banning of books, the erasure of history, disinformation and misinformation... These impact all communities. But we can respond to them as Jews, with our tradition’s wisdom and our tradition’s tools.

Today is one of our tradition’s best tools for honing and strengthening our sense of responsibility to each other, to ourselves, and to our Source. Every year Yom Kippur offers us a day of reflection and realignment. Where are we not making the right choices, or not doing enough, or falling down on the job?

For places where we miss the mark in our spiritual lives, Yom Kippur atones. Maybe we didn’t take advantage of Shabbat as a weekly day of soul-replenishment. Maybe we thought we were too busy to bless our food with gratitude, or to study Torah and Jewish wisdom. These are missteps between us and our Source, and tradition teaches that this day wipes the slate clean of these mistakes: we get to start over and try again.

The five steps of teshuvahFor places where we miss the mark in our ethical and interpersonal lives, Yom Kippur does not atone until and unless we do the work of teshuvah. In her stunning book On Repentance and Repair, R. Danya Ruttenberg outlines the five steps of that process, and they are: Name where we've caused harm. Start to change. Make restitution as best we can. Apologize. And make better choices next time. 

This is lifelong work. It's meant to be lifelong work. It asks us to carve new grooves of habit. To notice our blind spots and work to overcome them. To do better than we did before. 

Making restitution is often where the work gets difficult, because it asks something of us. This is the work of making someone whole after harm. The Hebrew לשלם / l’shalem means to pay what we owe, and it comes from the same root as shalom, wholeness and peace. This isn’t just fiscal; it’s also spiritual.

Notice how many of our prayers tonight are in the plural. “For the sins we have sinned against You by…”  The work of repair will also be in the plural: it takes all of us. Not because we ourselves caused the problem -- maybe we did, maybe we didn't -- but because we are responsible to each other. 

Put plainly: I don’t care who broke it. I want to know who’s going to fix it.

If we’re living our Jewish values, part of the answer has to be “us.” Judaism calls us to love the stranger, help the refugee, feed the hungry. Instead of saying “that’s not my problem,” we embrace our collective responsibility for each other. We cultivate empathy and connection. We make a practice of teshuvah. And we find meaning in making things better for others, however we can and for whomever we can.

The prayer Kol Nidre reminds us that we always make promises we can’t keep. Every year we gather to ask God to see us through gentle eyes and to absolve us of the vows we make that turn out to be beyond our capacity. Even so, I believe it’s worth promising ourselves and each other that we will do what we can. We must do what we can. Even though a year from now we’ll find ways in which we fell down on the job. Even though it won’t be enough. Because the alternative is to shrug and let injustice stand. 

In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King z"l,

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

This sacred day calls us to look with clear eyes at where we've missed the mark, and to recommit ourselves to doing better. Even if we ourselves aren’t responsible for the mistakes of the past, or even the mistakes of the present, we’re responsible to each other and to our community and to the stranger and the refugee and to our democracy and to our planet. 

What would it feel like to live with full awareness that we are ערבים זה בזה / arevim zeh ba-zeh, mixed up with one another, responsible to one another – to all of one another? What would our teshuvah look like then? 

And honestly, isn’t that who we want to be on this earth?

May our prayer and song and fasting and contemplation on this holiest of days galvanize us to live this highest Jewish value in all the days to come.

This is the sermon I offered on Kol Nidre at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the shul's From the Rabbi blog.)

Connect: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5784 / 2023

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.30.58 PM

“So what are you going to talk about, Rabbi, with the world as it is?”

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.32.46 PMWe all know the world is on fire. Climate catastrophes continue. Our democracy feels fragile in ways I don’t need to describe – you’re living them too. In many parts of this country, rights are under attack: my right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy, or the rights of people like my friend Rabbi Daniel Bogard in Missouri to pursue appropriate medical care for his trans son. 

This is our world, and the road to repair will be long. The climate crisis isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t think a quick fix will do it for democracy or human rights, either. The emotional and spiritual impact of living with all of this can be heavy. 

Over the winter, I picked up a new coping mechanism: learning Arabic on Duolingo with a rabbi friend. Any time I caught myself doomscrolling, I’d open Duo and practice Arabic instead. His resolve to learn had come from a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank. My resolve to learn was because I hoped to travel there.

Screen Shot 2023-08-30 at 10.07.49 AMLearning a new language is an adult is humbling. After about nine months, I can say, or slowly read, things like قهوة سيث طيب/ kahwa Seth tayyib, “Seth’s coffee is good!” or هذا مطبخ واسع الحمد لله / hadhe matbakh wesia alhamdulillah, "this is a spacious kitchen, thanks be to God!" Basically I’m a pre-schooler. 

I have a long way to go before I can engage in meaningful dialogue. Still, learning Arabic connects me outward, instead of stewing inside about all the things I can’t fix. And every word I learn brings me one step closer to being able to connect across what can sometimes feel like a vast chasm.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.37.23 PMIn early summer a few of us from this community went to Israel with members of two New York city shuls. At the end of our first full day, our dinner was in the home of Doris Hiffawi in an Arab neighborhood of Yafo. She introduced herself as Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli. 

Doris is Israeli: she’s a citizen of the state of Israel. She's Arab and Palestinian: her lineage is Arab, her first language is Palestinian Arabic, her family has lived in Jaffa for over 100 years. And she's Christian, which is the majority religious tradition here, but very much a minority one there.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.37.31 PMDoris welcomed us into her elegant home with music and dancing. She and her mother had cooked us a spectacular meal of maqluba and shakshuka. She told us about being a minority within a minority several times over – an Arab citizen of Israel, and a Christian in a majority-Jewish state and in a majority-Muslim Arab world. She talked about choosing empowerment as a woman in what we might think of as a fairly patriarchal culture. She runs a small business welcoming strangers – Jewish Israelis and tourists like us –  into her home for coffee or a meal and conversations.

And as we were departing, I managed to haltingly tell her, in Arabic, that الاكل جيد جدا شكرا جزيلا el-ekil jayyid jiden shukran jazilan -  the food was very good, thank you very much. 

Doris Haifawi speaks excellent English. Her Hebrew is gorgeous and fluent, unlike mine. I'll never forget the way she beamed and clasped both of my hands and called me habibti when I thanked her in my slow and clunky Arabic. She had extended herself to us by opening her home and her story. When I made an effort to speak her language, I was extending myself to her, and I could feel the change between us. 


This morning's Torah reading is – to use a rabbinic term of art – a doozy. Sarah conceives a son whom she names Yitzhak, "Laughter." Maybe you remember that Sarah had been barren, so she gave Avraham her handmaiden Hagar, "The Stranger," and with Hagar he fathered Yishma'el, "God Listens." 

Now Sarah sees Yishma'el מצחק / m'tzahek, playing with Yitzhak. It's not clear what that means. Rashi says he was doing something inappropriate, maybe engaging in idol worship. Ibn Ezra says he was just playing around, like kids do. The word m'tzahek shares a root with the name Yitzhak: was Ishmael pretending to be his brother? Part of Torah's richness is that it can support all of these interpretations and more.

Hagar_and_Ishmael_by_George_HitchcockBut there's not much ambiguity in Sarah's response. She says,“Send away that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share the inheritance of my son.” Even the language feels dehumanizing. 

It’s possible that Sarah lashed out at Hagar because of her own trauma. Twice, when she and Abraham were traveling, he lied about her identity and pretended she was his sister. He was afraid that if people knew she was his wife, they would kill him and claim her.  Sarah even wound up in Pharaoh's harem at one point, though Torah is silent about how that impacted her. 

I can say this: we know now that when we don't work through trauma, we often unconsciously perpetrate it on others. Maybe those who wrote down the ancient stories in Torah knew that on some level too, even if they couldn’t yet articulate how putting a woman at risk of sexual assault could be traumatic. 

In Islamic tradition, the expulsion of Hagar is seen as a necessary beginning to the story of Islam, foreordained by all-knowing God. In Jewish tradition, many commentators have wrestled with what appears to be Sarah’s deeply unethical act. 

Torah is a powerful mirror for the self. Maybe we resist this piece of Sarah's story because we know how easy it is to "other" someone, to see them as unworthy of our time or care. "I don't want to share what I have with somebody like that. Let them fend for themselves somewhere else.” 

And maybe that's why Torah tells us, over and over, וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃, "You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deut. 10:19) Torah is saying: our history must spur our empathy.  

According to Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), Torah gives us this mitzvah 36 times. Love the stranger. Do not wrong or oppress the stranger. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In R. Danya Ruttenberg’s words:

Everyone who has resources must ensure that those who are most marginalized are able to access some of those resources… [These] aren’t Divine Suggestions, they’re commandments.” 

And they are so core that for at least two thousand years, they have been first among the critical mitzvot that we enjoin upon someone who joins the Jewish people. (Yevamot 47a)  

Reading again about how Sarah othered Hagar – literally pushed her out of the tent and into the wilderness – I am here to say: we can be better than that. We can commit ourselves to not treating the stranger that way, to not othering anyone. 

And I also need to acknowledge that power matters, and that our various identities impact how safe we are (or aren’t) with people unlike ourselves. 

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.41.20 PMA thought exercise: imagine you’re a white man walking down a street at night. Notice what anxiety you do or don’t feel. Now imagine you’re a white woman. Maybe in your imagination you feel a bit less safe. When I was a teenager my mom taught me how to hold my car keys like a spiky weapon in my fist in case a man came after me. 

Now imagine you’re a woman of color. Probably feeling even less safe, because in addition to sexual violence, you’re also worrying about racial violence. Now imagine  you’re a queer woman of color: all of the above, plus homophobia. Imagine that you’re transgender or gender non-conforming, and the danger rises even more. We can see how risk increases as identity becomes more marginalized.  This too is an exercise in empathy: remembering that when I feel safe, someone else might not. 

Torah obligates us to love the stranger / the “other” and to help those in need. And sometimes the people who see us as “other” are actually dangerous to us. Our job is to discern when to reach out beyond our comfort zone, and when to withdraw in self-protection. For instance, I would not feel safe extending care toward someone who thinks Hitler had the right idea. Granted, I’m not sure how someone with those views changes, if not through genuinely meeting people like us. But our safety matters. 

Working to end bigotry and othering is collective work. We’re in it together, and that togetherness is key. It’s ok to say, “this one is too personal, I need an ally to step up for me.” I don’t feel safe extending myself toward a neo-Nazi, but someone who’s not Jewish could do that work. Meanwhile, I’m a cisgender white woman, so I can stand up for my trans beloveds and for people of color. 

Connection across difference, allyship, the pursuit of justice, empathy: these are lifelong practices. 


 A few weeks ago, the following question came my way: 

"Where do we find hope and renewal when everything looks awful? You probably don't have an answer, but I would really like for a spiritual leader to talk about how to deal with the world right now without falling into despair."

We find hope in taking action. We find hope in connecting beyond ourselves. We find hope in helping the stranger, and in standing up for each other. We find hope in resisting doomscrolling and doing something

This doesn’t feel like “enough” when the world is as broken as it is. But compared with doing nothing, it’s everything. 

In the words of Vanessa Zoltan, a Jewish atheist chaplain whose parents survived the Shoah:

[T]]his is the lived truth of probably half the globe, right? That at any moment you might have to leave. And so you keep your eye out for who could help you... But also at any moment, someone else might be the person who needs to leave or needs help. So keep your eye out as to who you can help.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.41.38 PMHere's one way to connect: my family is part of the Haiti Host Team, working to resettle a Haitian refugee family locally. Yousemane and Josnel came here in July via the Welcome U.S. project. Our work is coordinated by Bridget Spann at First Congregational Church in Williamstown, and I’d love for members of our community to take part. “Welcoming the stranger” doesn’t get more literal than that.

Or: reach out to be trained on the security protocols here so you can be a door greeter at services, helping our community stay safe even as we literally welcome people in.  Or maybe in the new year you’ll feel called to join up with our friends in the New Hope United Methodist community to re-start our participation in Take and Eat, the weekend Meals-on-Wheels program that Ed Oshinsky brought to us years ago, which we didn’t have the volunteer power to continue once the pandemic began.

When we help others we galvanize our sense of agency, which matters because feeling powerless leads directly to despair. And: doing this actually makes us feel better. So says Dr. Carolyn Schwartz, a professor at UMass Medical School. She arranged regular peer-support phone calls for people with multiple sclerosis... and found that those who offered support were helped more than those who received the support. 

It turns out that the best way to be spiritually nourished and to feel hope is to extend oneself to someone else. Helping others is a way of helping ourselves; we're not actually as separate as we think. 

So much is broken: the climate, public trust, the national body politic, our capacity as a nation to even agree on a shared set of facts.  Pretending it’s not broken doesn’t serve us. But we can reach into our tradition for the spiritual tools that do serve us, and I think this is one of them. 

The Hebrew word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavta, to connect or join. A mitzvah is literally something that connects us: to each other, to our traditions, to our Source.


The imperative to love the stranger and to lift up those who are marginalized are among our most core mitzvot. They’re central to who we are as Jews. They’re also at the literal heart of Torah. Torah has a chiastic structure: what’s most important is in the middle. And this verse is in the middle of the middle book, Torah’s deep heart.

On Yom Kippur afternoon we’ll hear instructions to provide for those in need and to act justly, leading up to the verse at Torah’s heart: “Love your neighbor / your other as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And how do we show that love? By feeding the hungry and acting justly. It all comes down to loving the stranger and helping those in need and doing what’s right.

This is the life-giving spring in the desert of our wandering. And it’s up to us whether we let it become choked with sand, or whether we help “justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

These are the words I offered at First Day Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)

Ready or not

The Torah table's in place. The chairs are arranged, and the music stands, like one-footed angels. The microphones, angled just so. The Torahs are wearing white holiday clothes. Prayerbooks wait in tidy stacks. Rolls of stick-on nametags sit beside baskets of printed holiday bracelets. The piano is tuned. The slide decks are ready. The sermons are ready. The blog posts are ready. My white binder of sheet music sports a rainbow of marginal tabs, colorful stepping stones through each service. As for my soul? Just now a spoonful of honeycake batter called her back from distraction, saying: ready or not here we go.

Dear Mom


Dear Mom: All last week I kept thinking of the time you were here for Selihot. You must have visited early without Dad that year. I remember the high-heeled sandals I wore that night. They were covered in linen, striped in red and orange and coral. Not my usual style, but I knew you would like them.

What did you think of our earnest tradition of writing down our mis-steps from the old year in order to begin to let them go? I can't remember any conversation about it at all. You were never one for regrets. The life of the party, absolutely. But introspective? That's not the word I would've gone with. 

Still, you loved the music of this season. I know you loved both of the melodies we use for Avinu Malkeinu, which you used to play on the piano at this time of year. I can still hear you playing that, and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav -- to this day I can't hear that without coming close to tears. 

Your grandson will be playing the double bass at high holiday services this year. You would kvell, if you were here. Meanwhile 8th grade school picture day was yesterday. If it were going to be cold, he told me, he would want to wear one of Papa's sweater vests and one of Papa's ties in his photo this year. 

You have two great-grandsons now. I imagine you saying, what amazing adventures they will have! You had such a fundamental optimism about the world -- rooted maybe in your own experience of growing up safe as a Jew here after the Shoah. You always seemed confident that good things lay ahead.

It's hard to feel that kind of full-throated optimism now, after COVID, after January 6, as climate crisis intensifies. How would you have responded to all of those? I can't imagine. It's too far from the you I knew. The world felt different to me when you were alive, and not just because you were alive in it.

But I can imagine you dropping in on our Selihot services from Olam Ha-Ba -- maybe with your parents in tow, because I knew and loved them, and they knew and loved me -- and singing along. I wore your necklace of big amber beads as though it were a talisman that could summon you. Maybe it did. 



I read an article yesterday (it scarcely matters about what.) Afterwards I spent a long while working on a terrible poem. Righteous indignation is not a good motivator for poetry. But the news so often fills me with grief and fury. Everyone I know is living close to the emotional boiling point, these days.

We haven't wholly grieved global pandemic, and meanwhile climate disasters intensify (and climate deniers pretend), and democracy is under attack, and the state where I was born is making it illegal to drive on state roads if one's purpose is to escape to a safe state for reproductive health care --

-- and how many of us live with all of this simmering in our hearts and minds most of the time? It's no wonder that even when we're doing all right, it feels like we're barely keeping our heads above water. Still, that's no excuse for terrible poetry, so the poem in question will remain locked away.

I've drafted my sermons for the Days of Awe. I surf the usual waves of worry. Does this speak enough to the challenges of right now? Does it ask too much? Does it ask too little? Is this the right message for someone who maybe only comes to shul twice a year? How about someone who's there weekly?

"You've drafted your sermons already, so what are you doing with all that extra time?" a friend asked. Not enough, was my answer. I should be spending this extra time on my own inner preparation for this holy marathon, but I'm not. I feel guilty. "What if you made your guilt your spiritual practice, then?" 

The question was flip, but also real. If the core question of spiritual direction as I practice it is "where is God for you in this," then I need to find God even (or especially) in the relentless worry and self- critique to which I am prone. Every time I think, "am I doing enough?" I need to respond with grace.

And when the news leaves me grieving or revved-up, the same is true. That I care about the world is a good thing. I just need to use Judaism's tools, because tying myself in knots that can't be untangled helps no one. "Maybe we've had a little bit of a week..." Right on time, here comes Shabbat.

Impulse buys

In early spring it's wild ramps,
dark blades of onion-scented grass.

Then come the fairytale eggplants.
On the cusp of fall, tiny plums.

In winter I splurge on clementines
though citrus won't grow here, at least

not yet. Sometimes I treat myself
to marzipan at Christmastime, though

almond trees are struggling.
We're running out of groundwater.

How long until the memory of coffee beans
will be implausible as the days

when silvery cod were so plentiful
we walked across their backs to shore? 




America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There's No Tomorrow, New York Times

Can New England's Cod Fishing Industry Survive?, The Guardian

A Future Without Coffee?, Inter-American Development Bank