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Trying for words


I've been sick (not Covid, thankfully) since the day before Thanksgiving. I don't feel eloquent or wise. But saying nothing is all too often understood as its own statement, so I am trying to find words. The release of each individual hostage during these fragile days has made me weep with gratitude. The Jewish daily blessing for God Who frees the captive has landed differently these last seven weeks.

Until now, I've had the luxury of understanding that blessing metaphorically, spiritually. I have davened it thinking of how God has freed me, continues to free me, from my own life's narrow places. But there's a reason it's been in our liturgy for many centuries. I experience it in a different way, now. Now when I pray it I also mean: may every hostage be released. May everyone who grieves be comforted. 

To the best of my heart's capacity I grieve for and with every Israeli and Palestinian parent who has lost a child, or child who has lost a parent, or anyone who has lost anyone, in these terrible last seven weeks. Grief is not zero-sum. Compassion is not zero-sum. Trauma also is not zero-sum: it compounds. I pray for everyone who carries trauma across that beloved land. I pray for everyone. 

I pray for a just and lasting peace. I worry that those who currently wield power aren't capable of forging one. I find hope in Standing Together, a Jewish-Palestinian-Arab organization that Micah Sifry wrote about recently. But grassroots change is slow. I remind myself: Mariame Kaba teaches, hope is a discipline. I remind myself: Jews know something about long, slow cultivation of hope. 

I pray: Please God, lift up wiser, more compassionate, and more creative leadership who can move beyond this vicious cycle of tragedy. Please God, I don't have words, I need You to turn my cry into the prayer You know is underneath. Please God, out of the rubble and ashes of these days may something better be built. Please God, help us to dream our way to a better future for all of Your children.




Driving home from my son's orchestra practice
in the dark of rural Vermont, mountains
a slightly different deep blue than sky:

sudden sense-memory of dancing with my father
at my wedding. Nat King Cole on Spotify,
probably a song our hired jazz trio crooned.

The marriage and my parents are both long-buried
but I remember my father healthy and strong,
his arms around me, the crisp sheen of his tux.

I wish I could have that back. My parents,
and how everything seemed possible, for all
whom I love. The griefs I didn't yet know.



It is day 42
of this terrible count

but every day
the same qualities

-- anguish
within anguish.

At Shemini Atzeret
time stopped

just as we prepared
ourselves to turn

from Torah's end
to new beginnings.

The new month
never began.

Grief's fires
are still burning,

blood still crying
out from the ground.



Today's daily Ha'aretz email had the subject line, "What you need to know -- Israel at war: Day 42." That's what sparked today's poem: the realization that we're in another kind of Omer count, one where the only harvest I can see is grief. 

May the coming Shabbat bring respite and hope to all.


Last week I added wheat flour.
My son had asked for challah rolls
for his lunchbox. My mother's voice
in my mind's ear tsked to think
of all that white bread. Besides,
I reasoned, shouldn't I save
the best loaves for Shabbat
so he'll want to make motzi
on Fridays the minute he's home?
The rolls were fine. More heft
than usual, and stiffer -- still
better than most of what we buy.
This week I said screw it, made
a double batch of the real deal.
Life is short. I learned today
the wife of a friend of a friend
died without warning. When it comes
to obits, the newspaper runs over.
If he gets a foretaste of Shabbes
amidst the din of the cafeteria
is that really so bad? I could use
some Shabbat when I read how
that man called his opponents vermin.
May these knots of pillowy dough
soothe the shudder that word
sends down my Jewish spine
on this brief November day.




[H]is opponents vermin. Learn more at Forbes. (Content warning, Hitler.)

I Don't Know


One recent day on social media, comments from two people I respect crossed my transom within about an hour. One said (I'm paraphrasing both) that any rabbi who doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is morally bankrupt. The other said that any rabbi who would call for a ceasefire, given Hamas’ stated goals of destroying Israel, is betraying the Jewish people. 

I’ve been sitting with that tension, and it feels like a black hole inside my heart. How am I supposed to know which path is most likely to lead to a future of peace and justice and coexistence in that beloved land? How would I know whether more military response or a ceasefire is likelier to bring about the just peace both peoples need? I can’t possibly know.

In rabbinical school I studied a lot of things, but never political science, international relations, or military strategy. Granted, there are rabbis who do have this expertise – e.g. those who may have a background in international diplomacy or who have long studied geopolitics. But I don’t have the training, or the crystal ball, I would need in order to make these determinations wisely.

I know how to daven from the heart. I know how to sit with a mourner. I know how to teach Torah. I know how to help people ask, “how is what’s happening in Israel and Gaza impacting our Jewishness and our experience of God?” I want the killing and suffering to end: that’s a core moral position. But I don’t know how to discern if a ceasefire now would really get us there. 

I’m horrified by the dehumanizing rhetoric emerging from Netanyahu’s administration. I fear that after this military action nothing will really have changed, except that there will be more parents mourning their children, more families furious and despairing in grief. Is it even possible for a military action to “end” Hamas, or will it only create more hatred? More questions I can't answer.

A Hamas spokesman said, in the Times, that the thousands of Palestinian deaths (so far) are “the necessary cost of a great accomplishment.” In that same piece, they’re clear that they seek a permanent state of war between Israel and the whole Arab world. If there were a ceasefire, would Hamas just attack again? What is the best way to avoid that? How would I know?

Hamas wants permanent war; I yearn for permanent peace. “The real ‘revenge’ for murder is achieving peace,” as MK Ayman Odeh said, quoting Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Yitzhak Rabin z"l taught, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.” Today’s hatreds feel too entrenched to bridge. Then again peace never seems possible, until it is.

But what would make it possible?

I can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire would embolden Hamas and fuel more attacks like October 7, which would lead to more killing. I also can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire is the only viable path forward; many Israeli organizations argue that military solutions have repeatedly failed and that the cycle of violence must stop. I do not know. 

I do know that I'm saddened by the ferocity of division over this in the Jewish community. Some Jewish musicians are asking those who seek a ceasefire to stop singing their songs. The North American head of the Jewish Agency for Israel says that he no longer considers those seeking a ceasefire to be Jews. Last time I checked, both doves and hawks are still Jews.

It is not obvious to me whether sustained military action or a ceasefire is the wiser path forward. But it is obvious to me that my hevre who are calling for each of these are doing so out of deep love and care and yearning for what they believe is best, and as an expression of their Jewish values. Surely our Judaism is not so narrow or so brittle as to exile one view or the other? 

Mishna (Makkot 7a) teaches that a Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is considered excessive. R. Elazar ben Azarya says: once in 70 years is excessive. R. Tarfon and R. Akiva say, if we were in charge no one would ever be executed! And then R. Shimon ben Gamliel says, that too would have increased the number of murders among our people. 

Shimon ben Gamliel’s point is, I think, that if we eschew all killing all the time, that choice also can lead to more killing. My heart is with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. But my heart may not be wise in that regard, if that stance allows harm to proliferate unchecked. And today’s Middle East realities pose a more complicated question than, “should capital punishment exist?”

The question here is which of two policy paths will ultimately save more lives in a conflict birthed in the dissolution of empire, simmering for decades, overlaid atop religious tensions and generational trauma, sometimes involving corrupt or unethical politicians, also serving as a proxy for other geopolitical tensions. It feels like hubris to imagine that I might know the answer.

The best thing I can hope is that this is so clearly a disaster of epic and world-shaking proportions that something, maybe everything, will have to change. I pray that once we reach “the day after,” there will be a rousing and thorough call for new leadership  – Israeli and Palestinian alike – who can together dream a way to something better than this. 


Can we pray for rain yet?
Has time stopped?

Are we still family
even if we disagree?

Where is everyone else
in this cloud of unknowing?

Who owns poetry?
What does belong mean?

Why fear ambiguity?
Where do we draw the line?

How has it been so long?
Where is the sky crying?

Why do people act like justice
and peace are opposites

when I know they are one coin
featuring God's own face?

Could the old maps be wrong?
Can we imagine new ones?

What if all I know is tears?
Who cares what I think I know?

What gives me the right?
How do I shake despair?

Is winning zero-sum?
Is anything okay?

Empathy and Dust: Vayera 5784

Screen Shot 2023-11-01 at 1.59.49 PM


If this week’s Torah portion were a newspaper, these would be some of the headlines:


God Says: Gonna Smite Two Cities

Abraham Bargains: “Save Innocents Among The Guilty!”

Angry Mob Wants To Rape Houseguests: Lot Offers Daughters 

Fire And Brimstone Turn Cities To Rubble

Was Sarah Assaulted in Abimelech’s Harem? 

Hagar and Ishmael Exiled to Die

God Instructs Abraham, ”Kill Your Son”

Oof, that’s a lot. Abraham argues with God to save two cities, but it turns out there aren’t even ten decent souls there; demoralized, he doesn’t argue with God to save his son. In last week’s parsha a foreign king despoils those cities and kidnaps Lot; this week Lot offers his daughters to an angry mob. Abraham allows Sarah to be taken into somebody’s harem for the second time; Sarah kicks out Hagar and Ishmael. There’s a maxim I’ve heard from colleagues who work in therapy: “Hurt people, hurt people.” Everyone in this story is hurting. 


Everyone in this story – our story, the one we’re living now – is hurting. I’ve spoken with so many of you about the grief and pain we’re carrying. The trauma of Jews slaughtered and kidnapped by Hamas continues to reverberate. For many of us that trauma feels compounded by destruction in Gaza, and by Jews being blamed for all of it. Many of us feel abandoned or betrayed by people we thought we knew. Antisemitism is rising everywhere. In this country, so is Islamophobia.  Many of us are experiencing anxiety attacks. Everyone in this story is hurting. 

When we’re hurting, we have a choice. We can close down around our pain – or we can open our hearts and just let the pain be, and trust that in time it will ebb. When we open our hearts, we also open to the pain of others. That’s the quality we call empathy: we recognize someone’s suffering, feel compassion, want to help. I recognize that those of us who are neurodivergent might experience or express that in other ways, so this is a broad generalization. Still, whether innate or learned, I think empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. 

KeretIsraeli author Etgar Keret said something about empathy recently that moved me. "When I see people watching the horrible tragedy that is happening here as if it were a Super Bowl of victimhood, in which you support one team and really don’t care about the other, empathy becomes very, very selective. You see only some pain. You don’t want to see other pain..."  

Right now, I admit, empathy hurts like hell. When I think about Israel, when I think about Gaza, my heart breaks and breaks and breaks. What I hear Etgar Keret saying is that empathy doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game, where if I care about this suffering I can’t also care about that suffering. In fact the opposite is true. I believe the human heart is infinitely expandable in this respect. I think the fact of someone hurting should arouse our empathy. If you only take away one word from this d’var Torah, I would like for that word to be empathy

We can’t control what happens geopolitically. And I don’t have answers, and I don’t think it’s our job to know or to control what comes next. That’s one of the worst things about social media right now: the constant pressure to condemn actions taken by someone else somewhere else. The petitions and statements, as though a digital signature or a Facebook graphic here would impact what happens there. The assumption that silence is assent so if we’re not speaking up constantly, we must be in favor of… whatever. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t help anyone.

What we can control is whether we close down or open up – and what arises from that. Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who serves the Arava region of southern Israel, wrote recently that he keeps hope alive by holding fast to the Jewish value that every life is sacred. He also noted that the average age in Gaza is 15, and the average age in Israel is 25, and it’s only between 25 and 35 that the brain becomes fully developed and able to restrain the drive toward anger. 

“And so those of us who are older, we're actually a real resource for our communities, to speak about kindness, and to speak about calm and thinking reactions, restraining anger and restraining the desire for revenge.”

Hurt people hurt people, and everybody in this story is hurting. 

I keep coming back to the part of this week’s Torah portion that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. They’ve run out of water, and Hagar cries out to God. And Torah tells us that a messenger of God calls to Hagar and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not fear; God has heard the cry of the boy ba-asher hu sham, in the place where he is.” And suddenly she sees a miraculous spring of water.

The sages of the Talmud cite this passage when they’re talking about pre-emptive punishment. Tradition teaches that Ishmael grows up to become the ancestor of the Arab peoples, with whom the children of Israel have not always gotten along. Why didn’t God just let this child die, and thereby prevent all the future harm that would come?

R. Yitzhak says,  ‘We do not judge a person except on the basis of their deeds at that time’” – citing this verse and the phrase “ba-asher hu sham.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)  We don’t punish someone for what they haven’t done yet. The commentary Torah Temima by Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (ca. 1900) adds: “Even though in the future [Ishmael] will do evil to Israel and even kill…” At this moment, he is a suffering child. Faced with suffering, we choose empathy.

I would add: we don’t know who people are going to become or what the future will hold. We don’t know what the history of our people will be over the next thousand years, or even the next hundred. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War it was impossible to imagine peace between Israel and Egypt – until the Camp David Accords in 1978. It was impossible to imagine, until it wasn’t. Like the miraculous spring in the desert that appeared to Hagar.  

EmpathyWe can’t control what’s happening. We can’t even control what people say on social media. But we can choose how we respond. We can cultivate empathy and curiosity: what must this person be feeling that would cause them to say that? Can we feel empathy even when we disagree?

And just as importantly: can our empathy fuel us in doing something toward a better future? There’s a Buddhist teaching that all suffering is connected, and when we do something to alieviate any suffering we impact the whole. So maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza, and we respond by helping someone locally. Or maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza and we respond with tzedakah – here is a list of many worthwhile organizations where tzedakah might go after Shabbat. 

When Abraham is arguing for the innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah, he begins his plea for mercy by saying, “I am but dust and ashes!” (Gen. 18:27)  Our hearts may have felt like dust and ashes lately. But the rabbi known as the Ishbitzer finds something beautiful in Abraham’s phrasing. He notes that ashes are the remainder and reminder of what used to be – think of the ash left over after a fire. But dust, or we might say dirt, can give rise to life. 

The first human being, ha-adam, was made from adamah – an earth-being made from earth, from dirt. Our tradition teaches that all humanity comes from one ancestor: fundamentally we are all connected. For me there’s hope in starting our Torah story over again with the first human being. It teaches us each year: begin with earth and care and spirit, and anything can grow.

Even when we feel like dust and ashes: we can honor and grieve what was, and with empathy we can water the seeds of what we hope will be.

Shared with gratitude to R. Robert Tabak, who cited that teaching from Rosh Hashanah 16b in an email this week. And also to my hevruta with whom I studied the Mei HaShiloach this week.

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


Content warning: words and quotations from recent Israel / Gaza news stories.










Phrases that render
us breathless, chest
compressed in an iron vest,
a non-exhaustive list:

charred bodies
music festival
hostage video
death toll

under rubble
collective punishment

"From the river
to the sea"
"I will stab you
and slit your throat"

We are all heart,
raw and beating.
Moral injury
doesn't leave a scar.



"From the river to the sea." Source.

"I will stab you..." Source


A question for my fellow poets, and/or for those who have poetry opinions. Does the use of another color "work" in this poem? Would italics work better? Would it be better not to set those stanzas apart at all? 

And a note to all: if the news or social media are giving you panic attacks, please limit your consumption. This suffering does not help anyone, and it diminishes our capacity to pursue healing and justice wherever we are.

Here's a prompt from the Jewish Studio Project that offers an outlet for emotions and reactions when the news becomes more than we can bear: Art-Making as a Form of Prayer and Nervous System Regulation.