From Chaos to Light: Bereshit 5784 / 2023

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Torah begins, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ / tohu va-vohu” – chaos and unformed, scrambled and unpredictable. (Gen. 1-2) In the beginning, there was chaos. Tohu va-vohu was the original state of the universe. It's a law of thermodynamics: entropy is always already with us. Chaos pre-existed creation.

Surely chaos preceded the formation of the modern State of Israel. In the years before 1948 our world experienced profound upheaval and destruction. The hope encoded in the modern state of Israel was planted in spiritual soil laced with the shrapnel of our broken hearts after the deaths of the six million. Could we have imagined, in 1948, the particular grief of right now?

This week we have re-learned some things about chaos and broken hearts. I have no words for the horror of what we’ve witnessed from afar… and I know this pales in comparison with what our beloveds there are going through. I think of when Aaron’s sons die unexpectedly and Torah says simply that he is silent (Lev. 10:3). Sometimes our sorrow is beyond all words.

There is unspeakable sorrow also in this week’s Torah portion. In Bereshit we read about Cain and Abel, the first siblings, born to Adam and Chava. One brother brings produce to God, the other brings animals, and God looks with favor on only one of their offerings. We might wonder why God's favor seems here to be zero-sum, but Torah doesn't answer that question.

Torah just tells us that the face of Cain, the farmer, has fallen. And God says, "Why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift." (Genesis 4:7) But Cain doesn't do right. He slays his brother in the field, and when God asks about Abel, Cain retorts, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And God replies, “your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Gen 4:10)

I keep thinking about the grief Adam and Chava must have felt – and the grief God must have felt, too. Torah seems aware from the very beginning that human beings are capable of unthinkable harm. Indeed, there's midrash that says at least some of the angels tried to talk God out of creating humanity, arguing that humans would be violent and terrible.

Truth and Peace say: don’t do it, God, humanity’s going to trample the values we stand for. Justice and Compassion say: no, God, create humanity, they’ll act with mercy and justice! Of course, we know that God creates humanity, because here we are. Our mystics say that’s because God yearns for relationship with us. God yearns for us to live up to who we can be.

Chaos is at the very beginning of the cosmic story, and bloodshed is at the beginning of the human one. In this sense Torah feels very realistic. It’s a funny word to use for a seven-day creation story that midrash populates with angels! But Torah has no illusions about who and what human beings are. This is what we have to work with. Torah begins with chaos.

And then: יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר  / Yehi or, says God: "let there be light," and there is light. And God sees that the light is good. (Gen. 1:3-4) Torah isn't talking about sunlight. We know this because God creates light before creating the heavenly bodies that illumine our sky. This light is something else. This is what our mystics call the primordial light, the light of creation itself. 

The primordial light shines in the darkness not of space but of spirit. And when God declares it good, God is saying that there is capacity for good in this world. God is saying that we can choose to create, not just to destroy. Our Shabbat candles shine with the glow of that primordial light. Shabbat comes each week to remind us that tohu va-vohu is only the beginning.

Shabbat is supposed to be a holy time out of our ordinary existence. But I am here tonight to say to you: if we need to grieve, then Shabbat can hold our grief. If we need to pour out our hearts at the pain and horror of it all, then we can. God can take it. And I promise that even if we feel our hearts are shattered altogether, I know that in time healing will come.

Cain asks God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We learned at Kol Nidre that kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh -- all of Israel is responsible for one another. We're mixed up in one another. We're part of one another. It's why when others are harmed, we feel the hurt. And I wouldn't want to be any other way. Even if that means worrying and crying and grieving from afar.

And I'm also here tonight to say to you: this week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we have agency. Chaos isn’t the end. On the contrary, it seems to be a necessary precursor to beginning. Even when darkness and chaos feel like all we have, this is where creation itself begins. Existential darkness gives way to light. It’s why a Jewish day begins with evening.

For R. Isaac Luria the story of creation begins with breaking. When God first began to create, he teaches, the vessels meant to hold God’s light shattered. Creation as we know it is full of shards, and also holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: lifting the broken shards to find the sparks of holiness, and lifting those sparks back up to their Source.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about these words from the Kotzker rebbe, as taught by Rabbi Alana Suskin: “The Torah says, ‘In the beginning, God created…’ God only created the beginning, and left the rest to humankind.” It’s up to us to figure out how to get from this beginning to something better. I believe that most people, in Israel and in Gaza, want better than this.

A friend recently mailed me a book by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, and I opened it one morning this week over breakfast. Immediately I had to pick up a pen to draw exclamation points in the margins. The sentence that drew me in was, “Hope and grief can coexist, and if we wish to transform the world, we must learn to hold both simultaneously.” 

I don't have answers to the vast tragedies and traumas we've witnessed this week from afar. But the voices that resonate most for me this week are the ones saying: these two peoples can live in peace. Nobody's children should be killed. Out of this terrible mourning, we pray for a better path forward. A better world is possible. 

May we remember that we are all each others’ keepers. May we extend ourselves with care to all who are suffering across that beloved land. Out of this chaos, may we find our way to creating light. In the words of the National Council of Jewish Women, this week we’ve seen the worst in humanity; may we respond by cultivating the best in humanity. And let us say – amen.


Wondering how to help?


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

My heart is heavy

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Here's the message I wrote to my community to accompany that prayer:

We woke this morning to the news that Israel is officially at war with Hamas. My heart is heavy with grief. It’s especially heartbreaking on Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. Like the Yom Kippur War, almost exactly fifty years ago, this coordinated series of attacks via land, sea, and air were a shock on a day of national religious celebration.

How can we rejoice with the Torah at a moment like this? And yet our tradition calls us to do precisely that. Our ancestors danced with Torah in times of Crusades and pogroms. We too can find strength in our traditions and in community. And we can dedicate our grief and our celebration alike to our most fervent prayers for peace...

Read that whole letter here. (And I'll include the text of the prayer below, knowing that some of us need plaintext rather than images.)

To our friends and family
From the windswept Golan
To the sands of the Arava:

We hold you in our hearts
We hold your children in our hearts
Our fate is bound up in yours.

And to the parents and children
From Ramallah to Gaza City
Who also do not wish for war --

We love this land with you
We pray for better with you
And we yearn for peace with you.

God, with all the desperation of our hearts we plead: may it be true that peace will yet come.

עֹוֹד יַבֹא שַׁלוֹֹם עַלֵינוּ וְעַל כֻלַם. راع ييجي اسالام لاينا واي كل إلام


Rejoice / Fragile

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.


I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.


I've been working on these two Sukkot poems in tandem. Sukkot for me evokes both fragility (the sukkah begins falling apart as soon as it's created; every life is a sukkah, fragile and fleeting; God knows I've sat with sorrow in the sukkah at times) and joy (Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals; this is zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing; on Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, God calls us to linger a little longer in joy.) These poems are somewhat in the mode of Texts to the Holy, though I leave it to you to decide who is speaking, and to whom. They appear above with accompanying images (and alt-text for screenreaders). Below are the two poems as plain text.



I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.

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

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“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



If I had any pull with God, everything you need
would appear right now in front of you.
A door would open and inside it
a rose-strewn path, the yearned-for embrace.
I’d take the broken pieces of the afikomen
and restore them as if by magic.
But that isn’t how it works. God isn’t
a diner waitress saying what can I get you, hon?
That’s why our sages taught: a clay vessel
is purified when it breaks and is glued.
A human heart, charged with a lifetime’s losses
becomes real when lovingly mended.
All I can do: ask God to cradle your heart
in Her own hands and make you whole.


I had actually forgotten that I'd written this poem until someone shared this image on the site formerly known as Twitter. As soon as I read it, I remembered what was on my mind and heart when I wrote it. I had to search on my hard drive to date it, though -- I wrote it in spring of 2015, earlier than I thought. Looks like it was originally written in couplets, though I also like the shape that someone gave it in this image. (There's a slight transcription error in line 8, but I'm honored that someone liked the poem well enough to share it this way, even without the original punctuation and italics.) It's not exactly a sonnet, in terms of rhyme or meter, though it's inspired by the movement of a Petrarchan sonnet -- eight lines, a turn, then six lines. My favorite line is still, "God isn't / a diner waitress saying: what can I get you, hon?" That's not how I understand prayer to work, even petitionary prayer. Sometimes I can't help wishing it worked that way, though. I would order so much wholeness and healing and sweetness and fulfillment of hope. 


The cat can tell the moment I'm awake.
He purrs because he knows breakfast will come.
It's dark: I'm not so thrilled to be alert
this rainy Tuesday dawn, brain sputtering
on far too little sleep, running on fumes.
Next time the former president is indicted
for racketeering I shouldn't stay awake
refreshing headlines, waiting for the news.
Of all the things that don't belong in poems --
though justice does, blindfold and sword and scales.
This week our Torah portion is called Judges.
(I cannot make this up.) Too on the nose?
"Justice, justice" -- Moses said it twice.
I live in hope. What else is there to do?




This week's Torah portion: Shoftim.



Lady Justice. You go, girl.

After the funeral


Rain taps on the roof like quiet hands.
So much softer than clods thudding
on a plain pine box.

Once everyone is gone
they take away the green tent
open on all sides, the worst chuppah.

The words wash away, but
I'll never forget
who rolled up his sleeves to finish shoveling.



In Jewish tradition, everyone present at an interment shovels some earth onto the casket. It is considered one of the last acts of lovingkindness we can do for the person who has died. 

I do remember, very clearly, who picked the shovel back up and helped us truly finish burying my parents after everyone else had taken a ceremonial turn. I wonder whether every funeral I conduct from now on will always bring those memories to mind.


If We Had To Choose: Re'eh 5783 / 2023

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That's the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Re'eh. The Italian rabbi and physician Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in 1475, writes:

ראה, pay good attention so that you will not be like the nations of the world who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground. Remember that אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה, I present you this day with the choice of two extremes, opposites. The ברכה / brakha is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the קללה / klalah is another extreme making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.

I'm fascinated by the Sforno's admonition. I usually think of middle ground as a positive thing. Compromise, moderation, finding the balance between the two poles -- that's good, right? Living in community requires compromise. The capacity to make peace and find middle ground seems like a good thing. But what I hear the Sforno to be saying is: sometimes seeking middle ground isn't right.

I hear the Sforno to be saying: don't be wishy-washy. We shouldn't "both-sides" everything. There's actually a difference between brakha and klalah, blessing and curse, right and wrong. When it comes to making an ethical choice between what's right and what's wrong, it's our job to know the difference. When it comes to right and wrong, defaulting to some imagined middle ground helps no one.

Looking at the world around us, this feels resonant. We're faced with ethical choices all the time. We can uphold the truth, or we can shrug off lies. We can learn from our nation's flawed and messy history, or we can pretend slavery wasn't so bad. We can ensure that every American can exercise their right to vote, or we can ignore when a state party leadership simply refuses to redraw gerrymandered maps.

We can protect human rights and dignity, or we can let lgbtq rights be eroded as in many states (now also at risk federally). We can uplift diverse voices, or we can ignore the banning of books relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and history, including books about the Holocaust. We can seek climate resiliency, or we can ignore the hottest month on record and the hundred-degree oceans.

On a smaller scale we can give each other the benefit of the doubt, or we can assume the worst of each other. We can speak with each other, or we can speak about each other. We can be curious and open about what's going on with each other, or we can make assumptions. And this too ties back to the "blessing or curse" paradigm that Torah gives us, because our relationships can feel like either one.

"The power to choose doesn't mean that every choice is equally wise... We can choose to let the elderly homeless remain on the streets.  We have that power," notes R. Bradley Shavit Artson. He doesn't need to add that if we can make that lousy choice, we also could choose to house the homeless and to feed the hungry. We can choose to take care of each other, or to say that others' needs aren't our problem.

Every year, including this one, we read these verses just before the Days of Awe. The new year begins five weeks from tonight, so new beginnings and existential choices may already be on our minds. But I think the choice between brakha and klalah is always in front of us. And this year, the Sforno's words remind me that equivocating, or opting not to choose, is also a choice... it's just not a very good one. 

There's a grammatical oddity in the first verse of the parsha. "See, this day I set before y'all blessing and curse" -- the instruction "See" is written in the singular, while "before y'all" and the rest of the verse is written in the plural. The opening word is spoken to each of us individually, a reminder that Torah speaks to each of us where we are. But the blessings and curses arise out of our communal choices.

The blessings and curses are aggregate. They impact the community as a whole. And they ask something of the community as a whole. If we want the coming year to be one of justice, we need to enact it together, because one person acting justly alone can't create justice. If we want the coming year to be one of concern for the needs of others, we need to live out that concern and act on it together.

What are the values we want to animate us in the CBI community in the coming year? In our towns? Across our state and the neighboring ones? In our nation? The choices we make together can bring blessing or curse, a welcome or a closed door, hope or despair, abundance or lack. I think we all know which is the world we want to live in. Now we just have to make that world real for everyone.


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

Gevurot: Be There

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This new prayer-poem is in the same vein as Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda Press), my volume of love poems to a beloved or The Beloved (depending on how you want to read them). This is my contribution to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Eight of us worked together on this one. It's part of a series of offerings arising out of the blessings of the Amidah.

I'll enclose the poem below as plain text for those for whom the above image doesn't work. If you know the blessing we're working with, you may be able to see how each phrase links back to something in the original Hebrew. Or maybe not, and that's okay, too. I hope that the prayer-poem can "work" either way.

These offerings are like fractals, or a kaleidoscope, or a collective word cloud, or a many-faceted gem. The same tiny piece of prayer inspires different things for each of us. Sometimes we root our offerings in the etymology of a particular Hebrew word or phrase. Sometimes the same word takes each of us in a different direction. (Hebrew is rich like that.) We take a prayer and we talk through it. We turn it over and over, and we refract the light of our creativity and our understanding through it. Or we refract ourselves through the lens of the prayer. Or the prayer through the lens of each of us. (Or all of the above.) We share our work, we critique and comment, we make suggestions. We turn things around, change stanzas, turn one poem into two or vice versa. Artists riff off of words. Writers riff off of images. And when all is said and done, we've created something that's more than the sum of its parts. 

I often feel these days that my own creativity is lying fallow. I'm not working on a big poetry project, and that's been true for a while. My last two books were Texts to the Holy (which came out from Ben Yehuda in 2018) and Crossing the Sea (from Phoenicia, 2020). It's going on four years since Crossing the Sea came out, and I don't know what's next. Maybe the pandemic and the loss of my second parent and my heart attack are percolating in me. Maybe the pastoral needs of this moment are so great that I just don't have space for holding a book in mind. Anyway: even in a time of limited personal creativity, this collaborative work at Bayit nourishes me, and it keeps me writing, a little bit. I'm grateful for that.

Read the whole thing here: Amidah Offering: All This Power / Gevurot.

And here's my small offering to the whole: 


Gevurot: Be There


Be there for me forever.

Wake up the parts of me
that have fallen asleep.

When I'm sitting in ashes
you lift me up
with gentle hands.

With you I feel alive.
All I want
is for your beauty
to bloom.

You're the dew that keeps me going
on the aching, thirsty days
when life wrings me dry,
the rain that refills
the emptied cup of my heart.


R. Rachel Barenblat


Return To Your Heart: Va-etchanan 5783

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After the deep dive into communal grief that is Tisha b'Av, our tradition gives us seven Shabbatot of comfort. On Wednesday night we faced the age-old hatred of antisemitism and the brokenness of the world. Maybe in the aftermath we feel anew that when we let ourselves be real, the grief doesn't annihilate us after all. And with that awareness we begin tradition's seven weeks of consolation. 

Enter this week's Torah portion. Parashat Va'etchanan is a kind of Jewish Greatest Hits. Moses recaps the Sh'ma and v'ahavta, reminding us to listen and to love with all that we are. Moses recaps the Ten Commandments and reminds us of receiving Torah in the first place. And we also have this verse, which maybe we recognize from the Aleinu prayer, because the Aleinu borrows these words from Torah:

וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד׃

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that יהו''ה alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (Deut. 4:39)

That's not a bad translation; it captures the simple meaning of the text. The Sforno says, "establish it firmly in your heart." I like that better, because he's attuned to the use of the word lev, heart. But I want to look more deeply at this phrase וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ / v'hasheivota el-levavekha, because I think it's no coincidence that this verse appears for us now. It's a reminder, a foretaste of what's coming. 


The Hebrew root שׁוּב mean to return or turn around -- as in teshuvah: repentance, return, turning our lives around, re-aligning ourselves with our highest values and with our Source. Returning to something we've maybe left behind or strayed from or forgotten. Literally re / turning -- turning again. In modern Hebrew, a teshuvah can also be an answer, as in a halakhic answer to a deep Jewish question. 

So another way to translate this verse might be: Deeply know, today, as you return to your heart: God is God. Torah is instructing us: to go into our hearts and make teshuvah. Do the inner work of re-aligning ourselves with our highest values. Answer the deep question that our heart is asking about who we mean to be. Return to our hearts and return to our Source, because God is God.

יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים / Adonai hu ha-Elohim: God far away is also God deep within. There's a unity that encompasses all of our differences. And as always if the "G-word" doesn't work for us, try: we do our inner work because Justice. Because Love. Because Truth. Because we just reminded ourselves at Tisha b'Av how much brokenness there is for us to repair in this world, and we've got work to do.

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Tisha b'Av set us on the runway toward the Days of Awe. Exactly seven weeks from tonight we'll be here in this sanctuary welcoming not only Shabbat but also a new year. Torah is here to remind us: the time for teshuvah is beginning. Return to our hearts, because that's the first step toward the great turning of the year, the great turning from who we've been toward who the world most needs us to be.

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In the spring we count the seven weeks of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, from liberation to revelation. We focus on seven inner qualities as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. Now we move through those same seven qualities in reverse as we prepare ourselves for the new year that is coming. We begin this journey where we ended the last one: with malkhut, presence.

We begin this journey by simply being present to what is. Present to what's real, in us and around us. What does it take to really be present -- really in the moment, not in the stories we tell ourselves about what was or what might be? How can we be present for and with each other? Because though each of us has our own inner work, Judaism is a communal tradition; none of us walks this path alone.

Our mystics teach that Shekhinah (the immanent, indwelling divine Presence) goes with us in exile. Originally this was a teaching about being kicked out of Jerusalem. When Babylon destroyed the first Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. The place that we understood as God's home address was destroyed, but our mystics said: the Presence of holiness goes with us wherever we go.

And that teaching continued to be relevant. When Rome destroyed the second Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. In every expulsion: Jews kicked out of England, or Spain, or Portugal, or eastern Europe -- Shekhinah came with us. It can also mean: in whatever ways we feel exiled from wholeness, Shekhinah is with us. No matter how isolated or alienated we may feel, we are not alone.

It's a radical idea. God isn't just "out there" or far from us. We find God here with us in the messiness of our human lives. And -- this feels important -- not only in the easy places. On the contrary, tradition holds that Shekhinah hovers over every sickbed. When we say God's presence is with us in exile, we mean in our fear, or suffering, or doubt. אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד / Ein od -- there is no place without the Presence.

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Ein od milvado calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer.

Our journey toward the new year begins where we are. With presence, Shekhinah, malkhut, really inhabiting all that we are. Step one is to return to our hearts. Be present to who we are, how we need to re-align. Make teshuvah and begin to return. Because justice, and love, and truth matter. Because we are about to start over, and we can make choices about who and how we want to be.

Shabbat shalom.


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

What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av

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Not just the litany of destruction: Babylon, Rome, the first Crusade.
Forced out of England, and France, and Spain.
Or how on this day in 1941 the Nazi Party approved
"The Final Solution," the mass graves, the gas chambers.

Or the old claim that we make matzah with their childrens' blood,
or the cartoons that show us hook-nosed and greedy,
money-grubbing, conspiring, defiling the world
with our stubborn insistence that we deserve to exist.

What gets me is that these hatreds persist.
In every antisemitic flyer and QAnon meme.
In every synagogue shooting.
In the uneasy fear that we might be next.

And still somehow we’re meant to look inside, to do the work,
To seek justice for those who have it worse than we,
To make things right with those we’ve harmed,
And if we must, to die like our ancestors  –

– with the Sh’ma on our lips.
R. Rachel Barenblat

It's almost Tisha b'Av. This is the new piece I wrote this year for that somber day. If it speaks to you, feel free to use it and share it.

I wrote it after traveling in Israel this spring. (And no, I'm not writing today about what's happening there. This is not that post.) I was profoundly struck by the reminder of how many peoples have hated us and tried to wipe us out. It's history I've always known, of course. But it lands differently now. Once I had the luxury of imagining that antisemitism was outdated and fading away. With the ugly rise of white nationalism and "Christian nationalism" both here and elsewhere -- with the reality that my synagogue now keeps its doors locked -- with praise for Hitler coming from public figures -- every Jew I know lives with the sickening awareness that there are people who want to exterminate us. Most of the time I keep the fear and grief at bay. But Tisha b'Av is in part about letting ourselves feel the things we keep at arm's length. We let our walls come down and face what feels annihilating. From the other side of that brokenness we begin the ascent to the Days of Awe.

And -- this feels really important to say -- if you are a trauma survivor, do what you need for your own safety. If letting your emotional or spiritual walls fall would harm you, don't do it. I can't say this strongly enough. The spiritual practice of opening ourselves to what's broken is a different thing altogether for someone who already suffers trauma's shrapnel. If that is you, maybe it's not safe for you to break open, or maybe you don't need the reminder of brokenness. Stay safe and whole. 

If you're looking for other resources for Tisha b'Av, here are two at Bayit that I find deeply powerful:

May this year's Tisha b'Av be what we need it to be, and may it move us closer to a world redeemed.

A Week of Building With the Bayit Board




Every summer the Bayit board gathers for a retreat. There are board meetings, of course. There are big-picture conversations about what we're building, how we're building it, whom we serve. There are late-night conversations and early morning confabs. As we learn, and pray, and play, and dream, we strengthen the foundations of the building work we aim to do (and to empower others to do.)

We talk Torah over breakfast. This week we're in Devarim. Why is Moses speaking to the next generation as though their parents' adventures were theirs? Is he showing that there is no before and after in Torah? Is he connecting the people with their ancestors? Is he coming unhooked in time and uncertain with whom he's speaking? What are the pastoral and spiritual implications of each of these?

We dip in the ocean. We marvel at the ocean, because most of us on the board don't live here. (The one who does live here laughs and affectionately calls us tourists.) Pelicans glide right overhead, and sandpipers run on wet sand. We hum bits of liturgy on the beach. A seashell with a hole in it sparks a sermon idea. Among rabbis, with the Days of Awe on the horizon, everything is a sermon idea.




We brainstorm about build projects, governance and innovation, what we want to co-create in the year to come. We talk about collaborative play, about middot (character-qualities), about book projects and game mechanics and how to reach people where they are. We play Hebrew bananagrams, examine what makes good games work, talk about what might differentiate liturgy from poetry.

We fall into accidental build-planning and vision conversations even when it's not board meeting time, because that's what happens when we're together. We cook good food. We make endless pots of iced coffee. One morning we wake early and paddle kayaks among dolphins in the intercoastal waterway and I quietly sing R. Bella's Modah Ani to the ospreys and the dolphins and the little sea turtles.

We daven beside (and in) the pool and the ocean. We sing the psalms of Hallel at new moon. We talk about the spiritual implications of the shehakol blessing, usually rendered as blessing God Who made all things by God's word, though the grammar points toward the future, not the past. What does it mean to bless God for speaking-into-being not what is, but what everything will become?




We unpack the possible gematria of our rental car's license plate. We unpack our various responses to R. Alan Lew's writings on responsibility for recurring patterns, and the fine line between agency and blame. We talk about spiritual direction and flow and dishwashers, how to use StoryCubes in Torah study, favorite melodies for regular prayers, the ideal number of builders on any build team.

We talk about Tisha b'Av, about different understandings of the fundamental rupture that that day represents, about what we talk about when we talk about God. While floating in the salt waves, we talk about what it means halakhically and spiritually for a hat on the waves to be hefker (ownerless). We write ideas down on post-it notes and move them around like a live-action Trello board.

We dream an entirely new build: talking about tools we can create and curate, the communities we think it could serve, the needs we hope it would meet. The whole room gets excited, tossing ideas out in turn, each suggestion building on the last. One night we are joined by one of our builders, and we brainstorm about tools, partners, Torah interpretations, what the world needs that we could make.




At the end of the week we are scholars-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. We share some Torah, some spiritual tools and technologies -- some of what we do. There are services, a Friday night d'var, Torah study, lunch table discussions. We return home nourished by dreaming, collaborating, playing, praying, remixing: ready to take up our tools again, and to continue to build. 


Shared with deepest gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors; cross-posted to Builders Blog. 

If We Build: D'varim 5783


This is the d'varling I offered at Bayit's Scholar-In-Residence weekend at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.

It’s Shabbat Hazon, the “Shabbat of Vision.” This Shabbat gets its name from tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, in which Isaiah describes a vision of calamities that will befall Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Sure enough, we’re approaching the end of the Three Weeks leading to Tisha b’Av. If this is the Shabbat of Vision, it’s easy to see what’s coming: the fall of the Temple. 

Not all Jews deeply feel Tisha b'Av, or mourn the destruction of the Temple, but the fall of the Temple remains  the quintessential Jewish tragedy of loss and exile. And yet that hurban – that destruction – enabled the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Our forebears wrote the Mishnah precisely to preserve memory of what had been and to start rethinking what had been.They took the foundations of the Judaism that had come before, and began to build something new. 

Later, in the conversations that became Gemara, the scaffolding of construction rose higher and stretched more broadly. And then others built on those foundations. Today we inhabit a Judaism of so deliciously many rooms! Jewish life and practice now take some forms that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. But all are built on the foundations we inherited from our forebears. They built the Judaism that their moment needed, and so too do we. 

The destruction of the Temple is foundational for the Jewish people not only because it sent us into Diaspora all over the world. It’s foundational because it laid down the principle on which Judaism as we know it continues to unfold: we all need to be builders. The Jewish future is always under construction. That’s the founding principle of Bayit. 

In Talmud we read:

Wise students increase shalom in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of God, and great shall be the shalom of your children” (Isaiah 54:13). Don’t read it as “your children,” [banayikh], but “your builders” [bonayikh]. (Brakhot 64a)

It’s our job to increase shalom in the world: not just “peace,” but shleimut – wholeness, completeness. No one is a spectator to this holy calling. All of us are called to take up our tools and keep building Judaism. That’s one of our core values at Bayit, and as we say in Texas where I grew up, “Y’all means all.” All ages, all gender expressions and sexual orientations, all races and ethnicities, all branches of Judaism, clergy and laypeople, rationalists and mystics.

At Bayit we create and curate meaningful tools for building the Jewish future. Like our forebears, we remix tradition with innovation, what’s been with what’s next. Some of our “builds” are new books, or new prayers, or new practices. Some are games – you’ll get a taste of that tomorrow at Shabbat lunch.  All of our “builds” seek to engage in new ways or deeper ways, with a first-hand sense of participation and investment in the experience.

How we build is as important as what we build. Building the Jewish future is an iterative process. We try something new. Measure whether it worked. (What does it mean for a prayer or a ritual or a game to “work,” anyway?) We get feedback. We tweak and improve. And then we try again. You could call this design thinking, or research and development. I call it fun.

Does it feel weird to be thinking about fun on the cusp of Tisha b’Av? Maybe a better word is nourishing. Even when what we’re building is new liturgy or updated ritual for Tisha b’Av – like collaboratively writing the text we called Megillat Covid during the early months of the pandemic, or setting an Amanda Gorman poem to Eikha trope – there’s shleimut in doing it.

There’s shleimut in part because we’re building together. In our Liturgical Arts Working Group (a creative collaborative of writers, artists, and liturgists) we’ve got Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews, clergy and laypeople, spanning the continent. Together we’re more than the sum of our parts, and together we can build in ways that none of us could’ve done alone. 

The Judaism of the future needs all of us, in all that we are and all that we can become. That’s one of my favorite ways to understand the teaching from Torah that we’re made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Each of our souls is a facet of that ineffable Whole we name as God, which means the only way for the image of God to be complete is for all of us to build together.

And a Judaism of shleimut asks us to be authentic. In spiritual life and ethical life, the things we do and the way we do them, we need to bring our whole selves to the table. The work of building Judaism requires us to be real with each other, with our traditions, and with our Source. Otherwise what we’re building would rest on flimsy foundations.

The Judaism of the future won’t look exactly like the Judaism of today, any more than what we do looks exactly like the Judaism of 800 or 2,000 years ago. With all due respect to the great Rabbi Moses Shreiber of Pressburg, the Hatam Sofer (d. 1839) who claimed in a streak of preservationism that anything new in Judaism is automatically forbidden, change has always been built into Judaism. When the Temple fell, we took broken pieces of tradition as we’d known it and we built something beautiful and new. Even the Temples were a re-framing of what had come before, a traveling Mishkan in the desert, which replaced the stone altars of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Rabbi Isaac Luria (d.1572) taught that when God began to create, God’s infinite light streamed into creation. The “vessels” that were meant to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The world as we know it is full of the broken shards of those original vessels, concealing sparks of creation’s original light. Our job as Jews – and I would say, our job as human beings – is to repair the world’s broken pieces and uplift those holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: literally, taking up our tools and repairing our broken world.

It’s Shabbat Hazon. When we look around, we can see plenty of brokenness. 

But brokenness isn’t the end of the story. The very fact of Judaism itself proves that, to the contrary, it’s only the beginning.  It’s an invitation to create something new, and a spiritual mandate to do so together. On our spiritual calendar, Tisha b’Av next week begins the seven-week runway to Rosh Hashanah and the infinite potential inherent in every new year. The Judaism of tomorrow will be what we make it, and especially on this Shabbat of Vision, I can’t wait to see what we’ll build together next. 

To remix Theodore Herzl (the “father” of modern political Zionism) with the 1989 Kevin Costner classic Field of Dreams, if we build it, it is no dream.


Cross-posted to Builders Blog


The Journeys: Matot-Masei 5783 / 2023

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This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…” (Num. 33:1) Torah spends many verses listing the 42 places where we went or stopped or camped over forty years. (Num. 33:1-37) In a 12th-century collection of midrash on the book of Numbers, our sages compare Torah's recounting of our journeys to the parable of a king whose child fell ill:

[The king] brought him to a certain place to heal him. When they returned, his father began recounting the stages, “Here we slept. Here we cooled off. Here you had a headache....”  (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3) I like the image of God as the parent who remembers every moment, and the chronicle of our journey as a reminder that the One we name as God is with us everywhere along the way.

As a speculative fiction fan of a certain age the number 42 makes me think of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 connotes, "life, the universe, and everything." Another interpretation: as R. Laura Duhan Kaplan notes, there are 42 words in the v'ahavta, the prayer that instructs us "to love God when we come and when we go and when we rest." 

To the mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov, Torah's list of stops along our journey is a metaphor for the journey of an individual soul. The forty-two stops evoke the twists and turns of every human life: leaving Mitzrayim / places of constriction, seeking sustenance and purpose and our hopes fulfilled. And for us as for our ancient ancestors, the trajectory of the journey probably won't be linear.


For us as for our spiritual ancestors, the journey might feel tangled. A journey that we might imagine should be brief or simple can take a lifetime. If you’ve ever thought, “Haven’t I been here before? Didn’t I already face this issue, didn’t I already do this work?” – you’re not alone. Any therapists in the room are nodding right about now. The work of becoming is never done.

The work of living up to our best selves, refining our best qualities (from lovingkindness to ethical strength to presence), acting with integrity, learning from our mis-steps is never done. It's almost as though the journey itself is the point, and the Land of Promise is our ethical north star that guides us.toward building a world in which every human being enjoys full human rights and dignity.

R. Alan Lew writes about how we bring ourselves to the same unresolved issues over and over again. I see the same kind of patterns in our national political life. (Today's wave of anti-trans legislation in many states mirrors the "gay panic" of the 1980s.) Are we just going in circles? I prefer to hope that we can make our trajectory go up even as cycles repeat, like the ramp inside the Guggenheim. 


The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that all of our journeys come from God for the sake of lifting up sparks. Our mystics imagined that when God first set out to create, God's infinite light streamed into a world that was too fragile to hold it, so creation's "vessels" shattered. There's a primordial brokenness -- and also primordial sparks of supernal light for us to find and uplift.

Our job is to cultivate the inner qualities that the fallen sparks need in order to be uplifted. We need empathy, we need care for the other, so we can take care of the broken places in the way that they need. Ultimately, the purpose of our journeying is to effect yetziah -- going-forth, Exodus from tight straits -- not just for us, but for the holy sparks in the broken places. For the whole broken world.


Okay, these are sparklers, not holy sparks. But for me the image evokes the sparks in everything.

If our journeying is only for the sake of our own needs and our own growth, we're doing it wrong. Don't get me wrong: our own growth does matter. Becoming our best selves does matter. But not for the sake of our own greatness. We strive toward becoming the best "us" we can be so that we can help others. Feed the hungry. End poverty. Uplift human rights and dignity. Lift all the sparks.  

And that includes the sparks we find beneath the shards in life's broken places. Enter the Jewish calendar. We’re in the Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz when we remember the first cracks in Jerusalem’s city walls, and Tisha b’Av when we remember destruction and face what's broken. On Tisha b’Av we’ll begin a seven-week journey of preparing ourselves to begin the new Jewish year.

The Jewish calendar is saying: what feels broken or precarious? The calendar is saying: we need to see what’s broken in order to mend it; we need to feel our losses in order to move through them.  As R. David Markus writes, We need to see where we've been in order to know where we're going. And what better time to look back on the twists and turns of our path than now, approaching a new year?

The journey of a lifetime isn’t linear. The journey of spiritual growth: not linear. The journey of a community or a nation toward living up to its highest ideals: not linear. Progress toward justice and human dignity for people of every race, religion, origin, sexual orientation, gender expression: not linear. The human journey is rarely linear: not for our ancestors in Torah, nor for us now.

We may feel lost or stuck; our ancestors did too. We may be unsure how to get from here to the land of promise; our ancestors were too. Maybe we're frustrated to be fighting to regain rights and safety we used to be able to take for granted; nu, spiritually we're right on time to face life's broken places. And wherever our journeys take us, we uplift every spark... until we've lifted up the world.


Shared with deep gratitude to the Bayit board of directors for learning together each week. 

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