The Journey of Heschel and King: Va’era 5778

G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is amongst the most complicated verses in the Hebrew Bible. And we read it this week.

This is the weekend when we observe two birthdays. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. They are forever linked.

What are we to learn from these two great men? Like the Israelites, they were on a journey. Like us, that journey is not complete.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was an immigrant. He was one of the lucky ones. Let in to this country after the Nazis deported him in 1938. Not all of his immediate family was so lucky. He was rescued. Saved. And we as a people and as a nation are better for it.

Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school sponsored this Orthodox rabbi. Jewish Theological Seminary wound up employing him. I dream of writing a paper comparing Heschel’s style to that of Emerson and Thoreau. His command of English and the eloquence of his writing is what makes him so accessible to so many—Jewish and non-Jewish, seekers of many faiths. That. And his living out his faith, his values and his ethics so completely. He made Judaism relevant again to many.

It is not just me saying that. On May 24, 2012, United States Senator Brown, of Ohio, lauded Hebrew Union College’s rescue of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel into the Congressional Record.

Martin Luther King and Heschel met in Chicago at a conference on Race and Religion. Here is the introduction to Heschel’s speech:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.”

That was January 14, 1963. I imagine that the two of them then went out to have a beer to celebrate their birthdays, which in Chicago they could do. We know that they became fast friends. We know that when Martin Luther King quoted Amos, he was using Heschel’s translation. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

Sometimes, it seems that first summit on race and religion is still incomplete.

It is still unsafe for African Americans to walk across college campuses. One only needs to point to Charlottesville this year.

Sometimes I wonder if we will ever get to that day of which Heschel and King dreamed.

As we approach this Martin Luther King Weekend in 2018, Heschel’s words need repeating:

“You  cannot worship God, and then look  at a human being, created by God in God’s own image, as if he or she were an animal.”

This is the idea that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of G-d. Everyone. Just like the U46 Mission statement says. All means all.

For months and months and month, years actually I have worked on the Martin Luther King Commission. You may ask why? Why is that important to Jews? We know Heschel marched with King. But that was then. Why now?

Because it is what Jews do. It is what rabbis do.

To quote Edmund Flegg, who I quote often, even at the rally here in Elgin after Charlottesville,

“I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.”

Heschel was not the only rabbi. It is hard to get an exact number and it is hard to know who to count. A few years ago on a different Martin Luther King weekend we went to see the movie Selma. It was a good movie. And important movie. Yet, we were shocked. It didn’t have any rabbis in it. So Simon, my husband, my social action partner, started to build a list. There are at least 35 and 3 rabbinical students. He thinks the number could be as high as 70.

They represent every movement of Judaism. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Hillel rabbis, congregational rabbis, scholars and professors.

Those rabbis who heeded King’s call are my heroes. Then and now. They put their lives and sometimes their livelihoods on the line. Some of them received considerable push-back from fellow Jews. Why should we rock the boat? There were still quotas. There were places that Jews were not welcome as hotel guests or country clubs or law firms or hospitals or colleges. Shouldn’t we direct our activism to Jewish causes not general ones? Al Vorspan, the Senior Vice President of the Union of Reform Judaism said, “Many of their congregations were on the verge of firing them for it. I personally went to several congregations threatening to fire their rabbis and told them it would be a ‘chilul Hashem’ a discretion of G-d’s name.”

Yet they went. Many, like Rabbi William Frankel from Wilmette, with their board’s approval. They understood the deep connection between our history of being strangers in a strange land, between being slaves in Egypt and the African-American history of being slaves. There is a deep connection between racism and anti-semitism. These experiences forever link our people and demand our action as Jews.

My heroes today are the people I serve with on the Elgin Martin Luther King Commission. Month in and month out, they strive to make sure that King’s message of creating a beloved community is one that we in the City of Elgin live out. That dream is one of inclusivity and mutual respect. One that recognizes that our diversity is a strength. One that helps us take care of the most marginalized amongst us as we once again collect food for the seventh annual Martin Luther King City Wide Food Drive. One that helps all people not just survive but thrive. They carry on King and Heschel’s dream.

And I serve, because quite frankly, it makes our lives as Jews safer here in Elgin.

But sadly, on this Martin Luther King Weekend, that dream seems to be slipping away as a nation, and we as a nation and as Jews are poorer for it. And we, as Jews, need to use our power and our voices to speak out.

We started this discussion with a puzzle. How is it that G-d who gave us free will, hardened Pharaoh’s heart? The classical Jewish commentators do not have answers. They don’t even seem to be much bothered by it. They seem to conclude that because Pharaoh is evil, there was nothing G-d could do. Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Pharaoh was being stubborn. Each time he called the Israelites back, it would be harder and harder for him to do teshuvah, to turn back. Really? This answer has never satisfied me. This is the same G-d who told Abraham and Sarah that nothing is impossible for G-d? This is the same G-d who says the gates of repentance are always open?

My own thesis advisor, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Zlotowitz, of blessed memory, does a round-up of the commentators in an article of the Academy for Jewish Religion Journal he used to edit. He concludes, standing at the pyramids, that

“God wanted to prove that Pharaoh was not a god but a human being, just like his people. If he were truly a god and omnipotent, then he could loosen his heart which God had hardened. But if he were unable to do so, he was not a god and the Egyptians would know that the Lord is God.”

“That the Egyptians would know that the Lord is G-d.” Sometimes it seems we are all just so stubborn. Sometimes it seems our leaders are just like Pharaoh and so stubborn. King wrote in Strength to Love, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Perhaps the anecdote is in our Amidah, the central portion of our service. We pray as part of the Amidah, V’taher libeinu, l’avdecha b’emeth. Cleanse our hearts that we might serve You in truth. May it melt our hardened hearts, our stubbornness away.

My colleague, Rabbi Larry Karol in Las Cruces, NM reminded us this week that while G-d appears to harden Pharaoh’s stubborn heart, the portion is named, Va’era, And G-d appeared. G-d appeared in order to offer hope. To offer a promise. Four promises. The promises of the four cups of wine at the Passover seder.

I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
I will deliver you from their bondage.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.

It is a hopeful, upbeat message.

The people of Israel were not ready to hear the message. They were stubborn too. They were weighed down, burdened with a Kotzer Ruach, a short spirit. Caused by years of being slaves, years of being oppressed, years of being told they were no good, less than human. They needed to learn that there was another way of being.

When I arrived in Elgin, this congregation already had a strong observance of celebrating Martin Luther King, jr,s legacy. We would invite one of the local gospel choirs to enrich our worship. And that was good but it didn’t go far enough. To only talk of racism or King one day a year would not effect the positive change that we need to make as a society. To pretend that it doesn’t exist the rest of the year is a luxury we can’t afford. So I found ways for me to involved personally. People wondered why I would go to Ferguson. Because I was asked to go, like those rabbis so long ago. Because it’s what rabbis do. People wondered why I would give up a night I don’t have a synagogue meeting to go to King meeting. Because I was asked. Because it is what’ rabbis do.

Leaders arise. Leaders who understand the message of optimism and hope. Leaders who understand the message of Exodus, of King, of Heschel. Leaders like Ron Raglin and Traci Ellis, nominated for this year’s Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award. Leaders like Mayor Kaptain and Danise Habun. Like Pastors Lois Boucher, Dave Daubert, Paris Donohue, Nat Edmounds, Jeff Mikyska, Katie Shaw Thompson, Denise Tracy, all of whom we have partnered with this year. Leaders at CKI too, like Maureen who is at the prayer breakfast this morning praying for unity and Gareth and Joy helping to organize next week’s Elgin Standing Together event. Leaders who teach our children how to bring food for the Martin Luther King City Wide Food Drive and then help them load the cars to deliver the food. Those are the next generation of leaders. Leaders who expect me as their rabbi to be a moral compass, even if it isn’t always popular. Because it is what rabbis do.

The message we all need to hear from the Exodus and from King and Heschel and 35 other brave rabbis, is that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And G-d rescued us. And loved us. That we are all created in the image of G-d. That G-d demands that we welcome and love the stranger amongst us. That we never, ever forget what it means that we were slaves.

I pray that we find the courage, the conviction to not become stubborn like Pharaoh. I pray that justice rolls down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream. I pray we find a way to actualize King’s dream, Heschel’s vision, G-d’s promise. Come journey with me.

The Journey of a Good Name: Sh’mot

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

A rose is a rose is a rose—Gertude Stein

Today’s Torah portion is the very beginning of the Book of Exodus, which of course tells the exodus from the land of Egypt. In Hebrew, we call this book Sh’mot. Names. It begins by reminding us of the names of the Children of Israel. Well, really, the sons of Israel, those who went down to Egypt with Jacob. Now a new Pharaoh has arisen who doesn’t remember the names. A Pharaoh who doesn’t remember the history.

So the text begins with the names repeated. These are the children of Jacob, the children of Israel. Reuben., Simeon. Levi. Judah. Issachar. Zebulun. Benjamin. Dan. Naphtali. Gad. Asher. Joseph was already in Egypt. No mention of Dinah. But these names are important.

All names are important. They hold power. They convey a certain intimacy. You are known by your name. We learn this, from among other places, Homer in the Odyssey. As part of Odysseu’s journey, he encounters the Cyclops. When asked for his name, he does not reveal it, instead saying that he is “No one,” and not giving away his power.

In the Bible, it is actually, G-d who names things. All the way back at the beginning of Genesis. In the very first paragraph. G-d created the light. G-d called the light day and the darkness G-d called night.

Then G-d gives that power to the first man in Genesis Chapter 2:19-20, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. G-d brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.”

And in the third chapter, Adam names his wife, Eve, Chavah in Hebrew, Life.

Each of us has a name. Maybe even more than one name. I am Margaret Joy Frisch Klein. I am HaRav Miriam Simcha Bat David v’Ne’ily. I didn’t have a Hebrew name until 6th grade. Ne’ily I gave to my mother, which didn’t exactly make her happy. HaRav got added much, much later. I have also had names such as Mom, Rabbi, Fawn. Fawn, my Girl Scout camp name was even my debit card password for a while.

Last night we talked about our names…and Hebrew names. Not everyone has a Hebrew name. There are many reasons for this. In this country, early Reform Jews didn’t see a need. Your American name was sufficient. Sometimes girls weren’t named with a Hebrew name, although they might have a Yiddish name. Sometimes in more modern times, particularly in interfaith families, no one thinks to have a welcome ceremony like a brit milah for a boy or a simchat bat naming ceremony for a girl.

Sometimes names are changed—when you are sick you might choose a new name to trick the Angel of Death.

We learn in Pirke Avot that there are three crowns. The crown of the priesthood, the crown of kingship, the crown of Torah. Yet, the crown of a good name excels them all.

The chief rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, tells this wonderful story, which ties in with last week’s Torah portion and our focus on ethical wills:

“There was a very wealthy man who passed away and left two wills, one to be opened upon his death and the other to be opened after the period of Shloshim, the 30 days of mourning, had passed.  In the first will, he instructed his children to bury him with his socks on.  When the children went to the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, and said that their father had left in his will that he wants to be buried with his socks on, the Chevra Kadisha refused because it is against Jewish law which dictates that a person be buried wearing shrouds only.  The matter was brought before Rabbinic authorities and it was ruled that he must be buried without his socks.  The children pleaded that the burial society respect their father’s dying wishes.  Nevertheless, they were told that if the wish expressed in the will is in contravention of halacha, Jewish law, it cannot be respected.  And so he was buried without his socks.

After the 30 days of mourning had passed, they opened the second will, in which the deceased was now allocating the enormous wealth he had accumulated during his life.  He began the will by saying to his children, ”I am sure you found that the Chevra Kadisha would not bury me with my socks on.  I wanted to give you the following message: you can have all the money in the world, but you cannot even take your socks with you when you die.”

The moral of the story as he explains:

“This story conveys an important lesson: ultimately, the only things we take with us are our actions, our good deeds, and how we have lived our life.  All of these qualifications can be grouped into one concept, what our Sages call a shem tov, a good name.  A shem tov relates to the totality of the person, what remains long after all else is gone.”

Our portion covers another topic. What is the name of G-d? Moses has been stopped in his tracks by the spectacle of the burning bush, a bush on fire that is not consumed. He knows he is standing on holy ground and he takes off his shoes. Moses is perplexed, and says to G-d, “Who am I that I should to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

Ehyeh asher ehyeh I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am. It is very difficult Hebrew to translate. So difficult that Onkelos in his Aramaic translation leaves it untranslated. (Bava Batra 73a) To give you a sense of the complicated grammar, Eyhey is the first-person singular imperfect form of l’hiyot, to be. It seems like it is a future verb, “I will be.” Asher is an ambiguous pronoun which can mean, “that”, “who”, “which” or “where” or “what”.

However we translate it, or not, the phrase carries with it the potentiality of G-d. G-d was and is and will be. G-d will be with Moses and with us. G-d is the G-d of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and continues to be with us through Moses until today.

We have more than one name for G-d. The first person to name G-d was Hagar at the well after her encounter with the angel. “El Roi”, the G-d of Seeing.

There are seven names for G-d that are so holy, that when written out in Hebrew we bury them in a genizah.

We know about Adonai, my master, which is how we pronounce the ineffable YHVH that was only pronounced once a year, only by the High Priest, in the Holy of Holies.

Then there is El—G-d, and words like that such as Elohim which shows up in the first chapter of Genesis, and Eloheinu, Our G-d. Eloah. Elohai. The Hebrew word El and the Arabic Allah are related roots. They are essentially the same word.

El Shaddai, Almighty One, or G-d on High. Tzevaot, Lord of Hosts. Yah is also protected because it is the beginning phrase of YHVH.

In the Talmud they argue about the names of G-d, Rabbi Jose considered Tzevaot a common name and Rabbi Ishmael said that Elohim was. Other names as we know them such as Merciful, Gracious, Faithful are considered attributes not names, per se.

In the Kabbalah, the mystical, received text(s) of Judaism, we find G-d as Ein Sof, Endless. There is also a 42 letter name for G-d and a 72 letter name for G-d. You have to be 40, married and male, very well grounded to learn these additional mystical names of G-d. There was a great novel, the Bee Season, where the young daughter learns the 72 name of G-d.

One of the things I like about the Reconstructionist prayer book is that it uses more than one name for G-d. So if one doesn’t fit your understanding of G-d as you are davenning, praying, then another one might.

Because of this tradition, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist movement wrote a great book, In G-d’s Name. After the creation of the world, everything received a name, but no one knew G-d’s name, so everyone went searching. Each person thought they had the Name. Source of Life. Mother. Father. Friend. Sheppard. Healer. Comforter. No one was willing to listen to anyone else. It is a charming book, written for children with a very important message. I have used it at services, with Hebrew Schools, for the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Its message is even more important in these times.

I read the story and on the count of three, we each called out one name of G-d. Whatever you call G-d, however you call G-d, G-d is. G-d is the potential of being. And G-d is one.

The Journey of Blessing: Vayechi

“May you be like Ruth and like Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
May you come to be in Yisrael a shining name.”

Fiddler on the Roof’s version of Sabbath Prayer, a Shabbat blessing for our children. This version is remarkable because instead of the traditional formulation of “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,” it substitutes Ruth and Esther. The boys’ formulation is “May you be like Ephraim and Manaseh,” right out of today’s Torah portion.

Jacob gathers his children around him and offers each of them a blessing. It is the first recorded Ethical Will. Moses’s farewell address at the end of Deuteronomy, or maybe all of Deuteronomy his last advice, prophecy, exhortation to the children of Israel before he dies, is a form of an ethical will. David warns Solomon before he dies telling him who to wary of as King and exhorting him to complete the task he could not, building the Temple.

It seems to me that this is such an appropriate portion as go through this weekend that includes the celebration of New Years Eve. Many people use this weekend as a “reset button.” They evaluate what this year has been and make plans for the year to come. They make resolutions. Sometimes that includes making sure our affairs are in order.

Last week when I went have my annual physical I signed a power of attorney, sometimes called a living will. I know I did this before I went to Guatemala but despite electronic medical records, while Sherman has it, my doc did not.

An ethical will doesn’t cover those kinds of medical decisions nor does it disperse our material possessions. Instead it disperses our wisdom gleaned over a lifetime, our values, our family history and our hopes for the future.

There are two books about ethical wills that are remarkable.

Hebrew Ethical Wills by Israel Abramson collected many medieval samples and published in 1926 and Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer contains a guide for writing and many samples of ethical wills written by others which provide a wonderful models.

Two medieval examples:

My son, when I have left you, devote yourself to the study of Torah and the study of medicine. Chiefly occupy yourself with Torah , for you have a wise and understanding heart and all you need is ambition and application. Let your face shine on people: tend their sick and may your advice cure them. Take money from the rich but treat the poor without money. The Lord will repay you. In this way you will win the respect of people high and low and your good name will go forth far and wide…

My son, I command you to honour your wife as much as you can. She is intelligent and modest, a daughter of a distinguished and educated family. To act otherwise is the way of the contemptible…

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Judah Ibn Tibbon, 12th century Spanish Jewish Scholar

If they can manage it, my sons and daughters should live in communities and not isolated from other Jews, so that their sons and daughters can learn the ways of Judaism. Even if compelled to request money from others in order to pay for a teacher, they must not let the young of either sex go without instruction in the Torah. Marry your children, my sons and daughters, as soon as their age is ripe, to members of respectable families.

To the slanderer do not respond with counter-attack, and though it is proper to rebut false accusations, it is most desirable to set an example of reticence. You yourselves must avoid uttering any slander for so will you win affection. In trade be true, never grasping what belongs to another. By avoiding such wrongs – scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing – people will surely find tranquility and affection.

Be very particular to keep your houses clean and tidy. I was always scrupulous on that point, for every injurious condition and sickness and poverty are to be found in foul dwellings.

Eleazar of Mayence, 14th century German Jew

Sholem Aleichem, the author of the Tevye stories, had his ethical will published in the New York Times the day after his death.


Dvora Waysman who moved from Australia to Israel left her children an ethical will. Here is an excerpt:

For now you are Israelis, and I have different things to leave you. I hope you will understand that they are more valuable than money in the bank, stocks and bonds, and plots of land, for no-one can ever take them away from you.

I am leaving you the fragrance of a Jerusalem morning … unforgettable perfume of thyme, sage and rosemary that wafts down from the Judean hills. The heartbreaking sunsets that give way to Jerusalem at night … splashes of gold on black velvet darkness. The feel of Jerusalem stone, ancient and mellow, in the buildings that surround you. The piquant taste of humus, tehina, felafel – foods we never knew about before we came here to live

And then there is Sarah, age 38 (not mine), writing to as yet, her unborn child:

To My Unborn Child:

I am writing this in eager anticipation of your birth. I know that I have much to learn about being a parent. I’m sure the challenges will be greater than even now I can imagine, and the rewards are probably bigger than I can fathom at this point. Please know that you are a cherished being whom your father and I have waited half a lifetime to meet. We’re so excited about your birth and everything that will come afterward. I write this to you now, knowing that my perspective may change as you grow and develop as an individual and as I grow as a parent. Your father and I are becoming parents later in life, with many experiences and, I hope a little wisdom gained from them. I know we still have much to learn. But this is what I know so far and what I hope for you in the future.

First, know that you will have a unique perspective because you are Jewish, but you also will have your father’s culture and traditions. Consider yourself doubly blessed with this wide vista from which to view the world. Even though your father is not Jewish, we agree that it is important for you to be raised as a Jew. You will naturally absorb the secular culture around you. Learning what it means to be Jewish in this world will be more difficult and may be a continually on-going quest, just as it is for me.

Now, I try not to suggest things for my congregants to do that I haven’t done myself. Simon wrote Sarah a beautiful ethical will that became the speech he offered at her Bat Mitzvah. I have not done so. So I guess I will sitting down and doing this project myself this weekend.

How do you begin? Wherever you want. There are some hints that people have gleaned through the years.


  • Lessons learned and meaningful stories from your history
  • Thins you learned from grandparents/parents/spouse/children/teachers
  • Your values, beliefs, opinions
  • Your advice, hopes and dreams for the future
  • Something you learned from experience and how you acted on your values
  • Something you are grateful for

Just start writing. Need more help? There is a template here:

However you celebrate New Year’s, may this be a year of blessing for you, your children and your children’s children.

The Journey of Three Angels: A Christmas Eve Midrash

Once in rabbinic school, I took a course in parshanut, rabbinic commentary, offered by Rabbi Steven Franklin. For me, it was a very difficult class and it seemed we stayed on some texts forever. One of those stories was the story of Abraham, the father of three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How I used to swell with pride in a public school history or social studies class when they would teach us that Abraham was the first “monotheist,” the first person to believe in one G-d. How smart that Abraham was.

And of course, I knew the story of Abraham smashing the idols. So did my husband. We each tell the story of telling the story to college friends who were amazed. You see, that story isn’t in the Bible. It is in the midrash, a rabbinic interpretation to help us understand the text. If you want to read that midrash it is in Genesis Rabbah 38. (Also called Bereshit Rabbah 38)

We studied that text with Rabbi Franklin. And we studied Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain. Did Abraham really sacrifice Isaac? Did Isaac return with Abraham? Is this, as some Christians believe a pre-cursor to Jesus being sacrificed on the cross?

We studied all kinds of things to answer the question, “What’s bothering Rashi,” a medieval Jewish commentator.

We spent time learning about the three messengers that appeared and visited Abraham and Sarah in their tent. Were they messengers, men, angels, G-d? Whatever, it seems angels only have one unique, discrete mission. Only one job. Then, they go on their way.

In this story, the first angel was to comfort Abraham after his circumcision. We learn from this the importance of visiting the sick. We also learn the importance of welcoming guests, whomever they are.

The second angel was to tell Sarah that she would have a child. And Sarah laughed. How could that be possible since she was withered and her husband so old? We’ll come back to that second angel. We did in class, too.

And the third angel went on his way to warn Sodom and Gomorrah. And we spent a long time on the Hebrew verb, pakad. Seems G-d paked et Sarah. G-d took note of Sarah. G-d remembered Sarah.

And G-d took note (pakad) of Sarah. The sense that verse carries is that G-d remembered Sarah. The rabbis teach in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 32b, Biblical verses that mention pakad are equivalent to verse that mention divine remembrances. (Ramban on Genesis 21:1) We looked at every instance of pakad in the Bible. It was a good exercise in learning how to do cross-textual references and analysis. Some days the work brought me to tears, even though Sarah herself laughed.

But here is what I gleaned.

Maybe Sarah was the precursor to Mary, an archetype of Mary. An annunciation of an upcoming birth to a barren woman (not a young woman at all!). Maybe, as one midrash suggested, it was G-d who impregnated Sarah, since in the Biblical text itself, G-d reminds Sarah that nothing is impossible for G-d. And three angels, like the three wise men.

Many of these midrashim we studied were later ones, designed to be put side by side with the story of Mary. Many are contained and notated in the 10th century work Aggadat Bereshit available now in English with lots of notes.

The texts were confusing. Troubling. Difficult. But worth it.

Maybe they were not meant to be anti-Christian polemics. Maybe they were meant to bring people together, not to challenge them or divide them. Maybe they weren’t prooftexts at all. Maybe they were elevating Sarah to a higher level.

After all, she was considered one of the seven women prophets of Judaism. G-d spoke to her directly, one of the ways G-d took note of Sarah. We know also from midrash that she was the “Eshet Chayil”, the righteous woman of Proverbs and that is how Abraham eulogized her after her death at 100 and 20 and 7. Again from the midrash we learn that she was as beautiful at 20 as she was at 7 and as righteous at 100 as she was at 20. She was a good role model for women everywhere, in every age—including Mary.

What if these stories of Sarah just enabled the cross-pollination of cultures that gave birth (sorry, couldn’t resist) to Christianity and Islam.

Cross-pollination, different from assimilation, has always been very real in the Fertile Crescent. There is a Ladino song, “Avraham Avinu” that talks about Abraham being the light of Israel. A star appears to signal his birth.

Here is the first verse and the chorus:

Kuando el rey Nimrod
al campo salia mirava en el cielo y en la estrelleria vido una luz santa en la juderia que havia de naser Avraham Avinu.
When King Nimrod went out to the countryside
He was looking at heaven and at the stars
He saw a holy light in the Jewish quarter
[A sign] that Abraham, our father, was about to be born.
(Avraham Avinu,
Padre querido
Padre bendicho,
luz de Yisrael) (x2).
chorus: (Abraham Avinu [our Father], beloved father
Blessed father, light of Israel) (x2).

Three Messengers, (the wise men?) an unexpected birth (or two) and a star that appears in the sky. Sound familiar?

Then I read one of my favorite Chanukah stories, The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco.

Trisha, the author, loves the eight days of Chanukah on her family farm in Michigan, with her parents and grandparents. It’s idyllic especially when her mother has time off from teaching school. Her grandmother makes latkes, potato pancakes and her grandfather carves wonderful, whimsical wooden animals for each night of Chanukah as gifts for Trisha and her brother. But one year, all the neighbors get sick. Really sick with scarlet fever. Except Trisha’s family. They hatch a plan to make sure that each family can still celebrate Christmas. They bring in trees, decorate them with one of the wooden animals and secretly deliver them with baskets of fresh food, chickens and latkes. On the last night of Chanukah there is a knock on the door. Trisha’s best friend reappears with her family.

You will have to read the book to understand the miracle of light and friendship. The book was a hit with Hebrew School. While it is billed as a children’s story, it was a hit with our adult Friday night bunch. I choke up every time, reading the last page. It seems especially poignant this year. This is a year where my congregation is actively trying to live out the ideal expressed in Leviticus and echoed by Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s precisely what Trisha’s family and Trisha’s neighbors did in response.

However you celebrate this darkest season of the year this weekend, remember to love your neighbors. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. Yes, I can say that, as a Jew, to all my Christian friends, and anyone else who celebrates December miracles.

The Journey of Time: Vayigash

Jim Croce sang it best:

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
Till Eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty
Except for the memory
Of how they were answered by you
Songwriters: JIM CROCE

What is time?

There are two words (at least) in Hebrew for time: Zeman, Ait. We know them from our prayers. Shehechianu which we will recite later today ends, shehechianu v’kiyimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh, praising G-d for keeping us alive, for sustaining us and for enabling us to reach this time. Modim anachnu lach, giving thanks to G-d, reminds us to do so, morning, noon and night, at all times. Another prayer hopes that this will be an ait ratzon, an auspicious time.

What do we do with time?

We make time, save time, waste time. We use time…wisely or otherwise. We mark time. We measure time. We treasure time. Turns out there is no easy definition of time, but physicists, and they don’t agree either, think that time has some movement. So a clock ticking (do those digitals ones even do that) is part of the movement of time.

Time is important in Judaism. We sanctify it, consecrate it, make it holy by setting it apart. That’s what kadosh means. To make holy, to set apart.

Shabbat is holy time. One of the things I learned in Guatemala is that the number one verb in American English is to do. What do you do? How do you do? What are you doing now? The list goes on and on. We are often defined by what we do. I am a rabbi. That’s what I do. What do you do? So much of our identity is wrapped up in what we do.

G-d created the world in six days and on the seventh G-d rested. G-d took a breath from all G-d had done. V’yinafash. G-d re-souled. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.

When King Solomon was old, so the story goes, he penned the Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet in Hebrew. Part of the wisdom literature, it has much to teach us about time. We know this, partly because we read it on Sukkot to keep our joy in check and partly because of the Byrds song, Turn, Turn, Turn. It uses the Hebrew Ait,

To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.

2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6 A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7 A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

But the very next line, we never really examine:

9 What profit has he that works in that he labors?

10 I have seen the task which God has given to the children of man to be exercised therewith.

What then is the task that G-d has given us? What are we supposed to do (there’s that verb again) with our time? How do we make our time count? If we are lucky enough to have time?

Reb Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof thought he had the answer.

“If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern Wall.
And I’d discuss the learned books with the rabbis
Several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest gift of all.”

He is longing for retirement.

Oy—maybe it is a question not of being rich, but of priorities and balance. Earlier this year as part of a Shabbat morning service, I took a vase and filled it with rocks, then pebbles, and then sand, and then water, asking each time if the vase was full. What we choose to put in our own vase is our choice and reflects our values and priorities.

Our tradition has some answers to the question, what do we do with our time. The prophet Micah answering the question what is required of us, said simply, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d.”

The Talmud and the Midrash attempt to answer this question, how do we walk humbly with G-d? How do we spend our time?

“To walk in God’s ways” (Deuteronomy 11:22). These are the ways of the Holy One: “gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” (Exodus 34:6). This means that just as God is gracious, compassionate, and forgiving, you too must be gracious, compassionate, and forgiving. (Sifre – Devarim, Ekev)

Follow the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5). What does this mean?…The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One…As He clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. The Bible teaches that the Holy One visited the sick; you should visit the sick. The Holy One comforted those who mourned; you should comfort those who mourn. The Holy One buried the dead; you should bury the dead. (Sotah 14a)

Another version from the Talmud, that works as a checklist has it this way:

These are obligations without measure, whose rewards, too, are without measure:

* to honor father and mother,
* to perform deeds of love and kindness,
* to attend the house of study daily,
* to welcome the stranger,
* to visit the sick,
* to provide for the wedding couple,
* to accompany the dead to burial,
* to pray with sincerity,
* to make peace between two people,
* And the study of Torah leads to them all.
(Pe’ah 1:1)

We’re back to Reb Tevye’s idea. Spending time studying. It leads to them all. Rabbi Evan Moffic at Congregation Solel recently wrote a book about this section of the Talmud which he calls the Happiness Prayer. If we do these things, then we will be happy.

Pirke Avot Chapter 5, another section of the Talmud, tells us at what age, what time specific tasks are begun.

He used to say (Yehuda ben Teima):
Five years for Scripture
Ten for Mishnah
13 for the commandments

15 for Talmud

18 for the chuppah (wedding canopy)

20 for an occupation

30 for full strength

40 for wisdom

50 for counsel

60 for mature age

70 for a hoary head

80 for superadded strength

90 for bending

100 is as if dead, passed away and ceased from the world.

A little bleak perhaps. But we learn that the goal is not being old. It is being wise and able to give counsel.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said that to become old is a grave sin. Think about that for a moment. What then is the goal?

The goal is to make life ever new. Tzvi Freeman teaches that “’Old’ is something that sits there, looking the same today as yesterday, as it will tomorrow—just a little, well older.” And he reminds us that “old” and “sleeping” are spelled the same way in Hebrew. You get old by sleeping through life. In Hebrew literature you will never find the term old applied to a person, that word is “zaken”. Wine can be old. A house can be old. But not people. Zaken is a contraction for ‘zeh shkanah chochmah, one who has acquired wisdom.”

And here is the tie in with the parsha. Pharaoh didn’t ask Jacob if he was old. He asked, “how many are the days of your life.”

What we are meant to do is collect days. How? Freeman teaches, By starting out each one as a newborn child, full of wonder and awe. Collecting experiences, expecting to be surprised. Willing to try new things. Putting all your strength into pulling yourself forward no matter how little you seem to move. Standing up no matter how many times you’ve fallen. Running ahead no matter how many times you smash into a wall (a good reminder for me the runner!). Laughing at stupid things. Celebrating the small stuff. And yes, smiling at any stranger. Another good list.

Today we celebrate a transition moment. The real retirement of Risa. She will now have the time that she lacked to sit and study. To continue to do the kinds of things she likes to do, to travel, to spend more time playing mah jongg and bunko, more cooking, more time with family. To find that elusive balance.

May we all find a way to live with courage, to number our days, so that we find a heart of wisdom.

Blessing for Risa on her retirement
May the One who blessed our ancestors – SarahRebeccaRachelLeah, Zilpa and Bilha; AbrahamIsaac, and Jacob – bless you as you enter into this new chapter in your life.

The world was not formed by a single act. Each and every day God renews the work of creation. May God grant you the strength to constantly renew your own creation.

May you open your heart and mind to continuous growth, unexpected change, and the perpetual unsettling, liberating expansion of being alive.

May you have the courage to name and sanctify this moment of change that is shaping your body and soul in the image of the Divine.

Blessed are You, El Shaddai, our God, the Renewing One of the world, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this time of transformation. And let us say: Amen!

For Risa to say:

As I look back over the years that have gone, I ask to see life as a continuum from youth to age: What lies before me now? I look ahead not knowing what will be given me to see. Sustain me, Adonai, Fountain of Life, with faith that the best is yet to be, for opportunities now await me. There is blessing that only the maturity of age can bring; there is a ripeness that experience alone can yield. May I find the sweetness of that joy that is reserved for those who serve others through the counsel and guidance learned in the school of life. Out of the lessons drawn from disappointment and success alike, may I be able to help them to discover value in life’s struggles, and find joys and triumphs that endure.

Now I have precious time to give to those I love, to family and friends. I pray for insight and a warm heart: let me be with them when they need me, let me respond when they call to me. And let me use my leisure to explore new worlds of thought and feeling, or to rediscover old ones. Now I can study my heritage of Torah, savor the beauties of nature and art, find new meaning and inspiration in the book of life. Let the passage of time continually deepen within me the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of knowledge and reverance for life.

And let me never lose that sense of wonder that stirs within me in the presence of Your creation and that beckons me to greet each day with zest and eager welcome. Thus will my life be renewed and blessed, and thus will I bring blessing to many in the years to come. Amen.

And the congregation responded with a resounding Shehechianu.

The Journey of Wandering: Miketz

L’chi lach, to a land that I will show you
Leich l’cha, to a place you do not know
L’chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And (you shall be a blessing)3x l’chi lach

L’chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l’cha, and all shall praise your name
L’chi lach, to the place that I will show you
(L’sim-chat cha-yim)3x l’chi lach

Debbie Friedman, based on Genesis 12

Our ancestors were “wandering Arameans.” We have wandered through every country. We are a people of immigrants and refugees. Today’s portion is no different. Today’s portion is about dreams. The dreams of a people of immigrants, of people on a journey.

Jacob was a dreamer. Joseph was also a dreamer. He was an interpreter of dreams. You remember the story. Seven fat cows and seven skinny cows coming out of the Nile. I still hear it in the music of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Something Elvis might have sung, Or Donny Osmond.

But Joseph knew that those seven fat cows and seven skinny cows meant that there were going to be economic plenty followed by economic hardship, that real debilitating famine was coming to the land. Pharaoh made him viceroy, Pharaoh’s chief advisor and so Joseph helped Egypt prepare. He built storehouses and saved grain. And when that inevitable economic downturn happened, Egypt was ready. Egypt had enough food to go around—and to share. Others did not.

That’s where our story picks up. “All the world came to Joseph to procure rations because the famine had become severe throughout the world.”

Reading this, I didn’t know if I was reading the Torah or a modern political text. This is Human Rights Shabbat, something organized by a rabbinic group, Truah, Rabbis for Human Rights, that I am a member of. I have participated in this event together with 500 congregations in North America since its inception in 2008. This year is no exception—although I hesitated. You may remember the year we talked about Fair Trade Chocolate and tasted samples. Or the year we talked about Tomato Rabbis. Or the year we studied some Talmud and the Declaration of Human Rights and compared it to our own Bill of Rights.

But this morning’s text is so appropriate for today, we couldn’t have planned it any better if we had tried. The Zohar teaches that when we went down to Egypt it is more than a physical going down, it is a spiritual going down as well. And that seems to be where we are—there has been a spiritual lowering, driven I believe by a fear of lack of resources. The truth is there is enough to go around. Enough food. Enough jobs. Enough love. There is abundant love.

This portion is perfect for honoring the Pitzeles. They are not going down to Egypt—but they are economic refugees of a sort. They are going down to Cincinnati—in pursuit of better economic options. A new, better paying more secure job has lured them away. After decades of working in IT with Sears, it is time to move on.

And while we are incredibly sad for us and we will miss them, we wish them well—many blessings, a new spiritual home in one of the many synagogues in Cincinnati and wonderful, make that great ice cream—at an ice cream shop called Graters. We will call them up shortly and shower them with gifts and blessings. Abundant blessings.

Personally, I will always be grateful to the Pitzeles—from that first field trip that first week we lived in Elgin, to Skokie, to learn Jewish Chicago—the Hungarian, Rosenblums, Taboun Grill and lunch with Rea, and a stop at a bead store, to breakfasts at Panera, to Women’s seders and art projects, to Sukkot happenings at the synagogue and at their home and Latke Lunches. And especially week in and week out Saturday morning davenning.

But back to our text. Jacob told his sons that they couldn’t just be look at one another, they had to act. They had to go to Egypt and procure food. But Jacob, being practical did not let his youngest, Benjamin go with them. So 10 set out—much like the Pitzeles—or like so many other refugees we have seen in our lifetime. Dreamers. Dreaming of food.

Listen to the language of the text. (Read 5-20)

What does that teach us?

Jews have a mandate, a moral obligation to welcome the stranger. 36 times in the Torah it teaches us this. Many Jewish organization have worked diligently on this very topic, based on this topic for generations. They include, HIAS, The Joint Distribution Committee, The Religious Action Center, T’ruah, AJWS to name a few. Most Jewish federations, including JUF, have a refugee resettlement division. 351 Jewish congregations have actively taken on helping to resettle Syrian refugees.

Many of those organizations take their mandate from this very portion—and from the days when the borders of this great nation were closed. Who can forget the tragedy of the Saint Louis, (even if we are not old enough) that refugee ship turned away from these shores and sent back to Europe.

According to the US Holocaust Museum, “Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to change US Immigration policy. Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.). This bill would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.”

So while we wish the Pitzeles well, we also think about all those children who have been deemed DREAMERs, children who came to country—much like the children of Jacob—800,000 of them in this nation of plenty. 800,000 of them who like Jacob’s sons came dreamed for a better life with enough food and health care and love. 800,000 of them who were brought by their parents looking for the American dream. They didn’t have paperwork, much like many of our own immigrant ancestors who arrived on these shores having fled war and pogroms, with just the clothes on their backs, under a load of hay as the original Simon Klein did. These dreamers have been educated in our schools, hold jobs and pay taxes, contribute in meaningful ways to our society and the American dream. We urge Congress to pass a bi-partisan DREAM Act, one of which was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, Jeff Flake and Chuck Shummer.

Please join with me in singing, The Journey Blessing as we wish the Pitzeles abundant blessing and abundant love.

Tefilat HaDerech—Journey Blessing

May you be blessed as you go on our way
May you be guided in peace
May you be blessed with health and joy
May this your blessing, amen.
May you be sheltered by the wings of peace
May you be kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their
way to your soul
May this be your blessing, amen.
Amen, may this be our blessing, amen.

The Journey of Wrestling: Vayishlach

I began this week asking for a volunteer to join me in front of the congregation. When no one volunteered, I picked my husband. I explained we were doing to do something that used to be called Indian wrestling—probably now politically incorrect. The goal is to knock the other person off their footing. Simon won. Then I asked if all the men had been raised with the idea, “Never hit a woman,” as Simon has always said he was. Every single man in the room said yes. Sarah and I used to play a game called Saturday morning wrestling. We stopped when she could beat me consistently. I have a niece who is on her high school wrestling team, still unusual for a girl but allowed, even encouraged under Title IX, but I digress.

Wrestling is different than boxing. The object is different. And wrestling is exactly what this week’s Torah portion is about. Wrestling—as we see in this portion can be with a man, an angel, a messenger, G-d, or yourself.

In Fiddler on the Roof, in the song, “If I were a rich man”, Tevye sings,

“The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
“If you please, Reb Tevye…”
“Pardon me, Reb Tevye…”
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”

The very first week I was a rabbinical student I started getting those questions that should cross a rabbi’s eyes. That very first question was about mikveh, Jewish ritual bath and about taharat mishpacha, family purity. Seems a local rabbi had just gotten engaged and he was going to require his bride to observe taharat mishpacha and she didn’t want to. Could I convince her to at least try?

Later on in rabbinical school I would get questions about nursing, weaning, circumcision, artificial insemination, rape and domestic violence. Every time I do a sermon about rape and domestic violence I have women lining up to tell me their story. Not one or two. Dozens through the years. This year, we now have a name for those stories, our #MeToo stories. Those stories have been told by women here at CKI every week around the Kiddush or Oneg Shabbat tables. Almost every single woman has some story to share, surprising some of our own men. It seems to be part of our journey as women. Part of our wrestling. Breaking the silence about this takes courage.

Now I didn’t go into the rabbinate to be a woman rabbi, but it seems, in fact, that is what I am. And at some point I realized that many women didn’t want to discuss these topics with their previous rabbis, they came to me precisely because I was a woman.

Today’s Torah portion makes many uncomfortable. It is one we don’t teach in Hebrew School. It is not a pleasant story. It is sandwiched in between Jacob wrestling with an angel when his name is changed from Ya’akov, heal or sneak to Yisrael, One who wrestles with G-d. Then G-d tells him again that his name will now be Yisrael.

So I wrestled. I wrestled with whether to even do this sermon. Too risky. But it is in the text. It begins our reading this morning. It is difficult. Painful. Haunting. Real. People don’t want to hear about it. People have even tried to silence me about speaking about this topic. Yet we are at this precise moment in time. I believe there are no coincidences. This very text at this very moment in time. How could I not?

The next question I wrestled with is why the repetition. Why tell the story of the name change twice? The first time it is in the voice of this shadowy being. Now, as we will read shortly it is in the voice of G-d. I think that lends it gravitas. It is more serious. It leaves no room for doubt. Ya’akov is now Yisrael. G-d himself said so.

But now we have to confront Chapter 34, much like our whole country is doing with sexual harassment and assault.
The Hebrew isn’t so clear as our Chumash translation would make it.
Let’s look at it.
Vayetzei Dinah bat Leah asher yaldah l’yaakov.
And Dinah, daughter of Leah who bore her to Jacob, went out.
L’irot bivnot ha’aretz. To see the daughters of the land.

Seems simple no. Dinah, the only girl in the family, went out to find other women. We don’t know what she was looking for. Companionship? Friendship? Kids her own age outside of her mother’s view?

The traditional Jewish commentaries are not kind to her.
It was immodest to go out. She shouldn’t have wanted to seek out others in land. She was trying to worship foreign, alien gods. She should have stayed at home. Most of us these days, men and women, would reject those commentaries as promoting a blame the victim mentality.

Our own chumash, Etz Hayyim doesn’t site the sources and says as much, yet those notions persist, both about Dinah and about modern victims. What was she wearing? She was asking for it. She was leading him on. She’s not credible. She waited too long. She’s just gold digging. We’ve heard all these comments in the last six weeks, again, about victims, since Harry Weinstein came to light.

They were not appropriate about Dinah and they are not appropriate now.

Vayaraei otah Schem ben Chamor hachivi n’sai ha’aretz, And Shechem, son of Chamor, the Hivite land chief, saw her,
Vayikach otah, and he took her, vayishkav otah, and he lay with her, v’aniyah. And something.

Our translation and the one in the Saint Johns Bible, the New Revised Standard has lay with her by force. Others have argued that this is not a good translation and does not fit with the rest of the text. A better translation might be he shamed her, he humbled her, he put her down.

The text then goes on to give three expressions of affection. He bonded with her (or as our text has is strongly drawn to her), he loved the young woman, and he spoke to the young woman’s heart or as our text says he spoke tenderly to her.

So what happened here? Is this then consensual? He doesn’t actually ask permission and she does not give a verbal consent. In fact, she is silent the entire chapter. Is it one of the original date rapes ever recorded? Is it a she said/he said scenario?

Anita Diamant wrote an entire modern midrash to grapple with that question, called The Red Tent. A New York Times best seller and celebrating its twentieth anniversary, considered revolutionary at the time, just this week it was named by the Reform Movement as one of the top social justice books of all times. That surprised both Anita and me.

Judith Hauptman, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, and ordained by my seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, wrote a book called Rereading the Rabbis. Many have said that the rabbis were misogynists. Actually, and she documents it pretty well, they were ahead of their time. Rape is wrong. Marital rape is wrong. Punishable. And ahead of its time.

But what happens next in our text this morning, is even puzzling to our modern ears. He demands that his father get Dinah for him as his wife. And his father, the ruler, does. That is not OK.

And even more puzzling…when Jacob heard what happened he was silent. In that sentence we learned that Shechem defiled Jacob’s daughter, making it clearer what happened. By which I think the text means she is no longer a virgin so no longer eligible for the premium bride price. Our chumash justifies the silence by saying that he needed to exercise restraint.

So two examples of silence. Dinah has no voice in the text at all. And Jacob is silent.

Jacob’s son on the other hand want to exact revenge, but it is not clear whether it is because she is harmed or because as others have suggested they are trying to protect the boundaries of marriage and Shechem is an outsider. Is this the ultimate anti-intermarriage text? They negotiate Shechem becoming an Israelite, by circumcision, which maybe they believe Shechem won’t agree to, being too painful to even consider.
Yet, everyone agrees to the circumcisions and then on the third day, when they were in pain—obviously no bags of frozen peas back then—Simeon and Levi, killed all the males. It can only be described as brutal.

And only then does Jacob speak. He worries that the remaining people will unite against him, and attack and he and his house will be destroyed. I want to scream. What about Dinah? What happens to Dinah? How does Dinah feel? But again, silence.

The next scene G-d again speaks to Jacob. This time directly. No room for ambiguity. G-d tells him to get up and go. Back to Beth El—the House of G-d. And so Jacob does. And again we are told that Jacob is blessed by G-d and told his name will be Yisrael. One who wrestles with G-d and man and prevails. Persists.

On Friday night, as part of the coming attractions, I read three poems. Merle Feld’s poem, “We all stood at Sinai,” about recapturing women’s voices and together with the men we could capture holy time, sparks flying. I read that one a lot.

I read Rabbi Jill Hammer’s agonizing poem about Dinah for Adar Aleph, the Hidden Month of a leap year. Each Hebrew month is ascribed to one of the 12 tribes, but Adar Aleph is ascribed to Dinah. Then I read my own.

“I wrestled too”

G-d called to you and you heard
G-d appeared to you and you answered
You lay your head on a rock
And you dreamed
Of a ladder extending to heaven
With angels ascending and descending
Of holiness
You knew then that G-d was in that place

G-d called to you again and you heard.
You went to reconcile with your brother.
When you went to meet Esau.
First you protected your family.
Put them on the other side of the river.

It was a long night.

You wrestled with an angel, a man, a messenger.
Maybe with G-d. Maybe with yourself.
Were you afraid?
Your body sweaty. You persisted.
And your name was changed.
To Yisrael, One who wrestles with G-d.

I told you my story
And you were silent.
You waited for your sons to come home
You didn’t know what to do

I wrestled too that long night.
I was alone. I was afraid.
I called out and you did not hear.
I called out and you did not answer.
You were silent.

Then after my brothers tried to defend me
Defend my honor but it was too late.
Only then did you speak.
You told them, but not me
That they had ruined your reputation.
That Shechem might attack you
That your house might be destroyed.

What about me? Was I destroyed?
Was my reputation ruined?
Was I destined to wrestle for the rest of my life?
Was I a victim or a survivor?
Was I willing?
Did I want it? Lead him on?
If I hadn’t gone out into the field would it never have happened?

God called to you again and you heard.
You arose and left Shechem.
To go the BethEl, the House of G-d.
God blessed you on your journey.
God changed your name
From Jacob to Yisrael

That long night, I was not alone.
God was in that place and I knew it not.

Father, do not remain silent.
Speak to me.
Look at me.
Answer me.
Father, do you have a blessing for me?
What is my name?
What is my destiny?
For surely I have wrestled and persisted.
I wrestle still.

So men, at this crossroads in American history, remember what your mothers taught you. Don’t hit a woman. And women, if you have a #MeToo story, I, as your rabbi, not just a woman rabbi, support you, believe you, will listen to you and add my voice to yours. I will not be silent. Our tradition demands more.

The Journey to Covenant: Noach 5778

We have said we are all on a journey. Our ancestors were on a journey too.

We know this story.

Noah was a righteous man, in his generation.

G-d got frustrated, and threatened to destroy the world because not everyone was as righteous, not even close to Noah. So G-d told Noah to build an ark. How many of you hear this in the voice of Bill Cosby, doing his own midrash on Noah. Not today.

Or the song, “Rise and Shine,” we sang that last night.

So, Noah he build Him, he build him an arky, arky.

He rescued two of every animal, seven of the kosher ones, so that the world could start again. Maybe that was the original Humane Society or MSPCA.

What if I told you that this wasn’t the first time G-d destroyed the world? It may not be the last. According to the midrash there were 974 worlds. (Midrash Tehilim 90:13 and Bereshit Rabbah 3:7). This number is derived from the verse in Psalms, “remember his covenant, a word He commanded for a thousand generations.” (Psalms 105:8)

How many worlds? The rabbis ask the same thing….
How many worlds? Its unclear, but they added up to a thousand generations of souls, according to one reading, based on Ps. 105:8; 974 according to another. How that latter number? Noah was the 26th Generation of [this] creation, and since the Sages teach that Solomon was referring to Noah when he wrote, Only one man in a thousand have I found… (Eccl. 7:28), they deduct 26 from 1000 and get….974 (Gen. R. 28:4). 974 becomes the working number for prior creations in many subsequent retellings of this legend (Talmud Hag. 13b, Midrash Tehillim 90:13; Shabbat 88b)

I see it like young children who keep making worlds in play dough and then smashing them. Or legos or blocks and then knocking them over. Over and over and over again. G-d seems to never be satisfied with what G-d has created. And maybe there is good reason for that. G-d gave us free will and we keep making questionable decisions. It is not a whole lot different than parenting. Right? We give birth to this creature, our child, who we love so much. And we give her a choice, do you want to wear this dress or that one? And the child picks out the most awful combination. But we gave her the choice, so off she goes with mismatched clothes. Or we ask him to pick a friend to play with and we don’t like the parents. But we gave him a choice, so the play date is secured. Ultimately, we are helping our children become independent adults. Slowly over time. But there are days when we wonder why we gave them a choice at all.

Wouldn’t it be better to just start over? Start from scratch? It might be easier. It might be more perfect.

G-d realizes, again over and over again, that G-d has made a mistake. Maybe G-d should just start over. And then again, maybe not. So G-d makes a covenant, a brit, that G-d will not destroy the world again, at least not by water.

A covenant, a brit, is an agreement, a pact, a promise. If you do x then I will do y.

This is the first covenant G-d makes with people. Later G-d makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, later still with Moses and the people of Israel. And in each case there is a sign of the covenant. They are designed to help us remember the terms of these promises.

After the rain. After the raven. After the dove. G-d put a rainbow in the sky,

Sign of the covenant.

  • The rainbow. The blessing for seeing a rainbow ends “zochair habrit, to remember the covenant”
  • Shabbat, Shabbat is the sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and G-d. In the Shabbat Kiddush and in V’shamru, we say, “Zechair l’ma’aseh v’reishit, to remember the works of creation.”
  • Brit milah, the circumcision, which is how we enter 8 day old boys into the covenant, is described as “The bris is a physical symbol of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. It is a constant reminder of what the Jewish mission entails (a reminder which men need more than women). (Chabad, ) Now this one interests me for several reasons. That is exactly the way it was taught to me when I was studying in an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. We women are on a higher spiritual plane. This rational is included in the movie I think we are showing here at CKI in February. Women’s Balcony. You’ll have to let me know what you think. But I will tell you that today is Rosh Hodesh, a half holiday given to women because we did not give up our gold for the sin of the golden calf.
  • Mezuzah and Tefilin, which putt these very words that remind us of the covenant on our doorposts and in front of our eyes. (Deut. 6:9, 11) Rambam, the 12th century rabbinic scholar said, Whenever one enters or leaves a home with the mezuzah on the doorpost, he will be confronted with the declaration of G-d’s unity….and will be aroused from…..his foolish absorption in temporal vanities. He will realize that nothing endures to all eternity save knowledge of the Ruler of the Universe.” (Mishneh Torah, 6:13)
  • Tzitzit, the fringes we are commanded on our garments, in Numbers 15:38 are to “remember all of My commandments.” They are literally like tying a string on your finger to help you remember.
  • The Torah. The Torah is seen as the marriage contract, the ketubah, the sign between Israel and G-d. Literally it is a signed document. Marriage too is a covenantal relationship. It is a holy relationship. Jeremiah 31 sums this up well: “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

But here is the question. Who needs to be reminded? Us or G-d? If we look carefully at the language of this week’s portion, it would seem to be G-d.

G-d will put “my rainbow” in the sky, “that I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living being of all flesh and the waters shall no more bring a flood to destroy all life. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it and I may remember the everlasting covenant between G0d and every living creature.” (Genesis 9:15-16)

And while those are anthropomorphic images of G-d, it elevates G-d above the level of that toddler playing with playdough or blocks. Those signs help us and G-d to remember that we have an obligation, a responsibility to partners with G-d to make sure that this world is not destroyed. That is the basis of the mystical tradition of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

The story goes like this:

When G-d began to create the world, this world, after those 974 other worlds, G-d’s presence filled creation. So G-d needed to make room for this world. G-d took a breath in, contracting. We call that tzimtzum. From that contraction, there was darkness. When G-d said, “Let there be light”, the lightness filled the darkness and ten holy vessels were filled with this primordial light.

Those holy vessels were too fragile to contain that light, so they shattered, sending sparks and shards flying. That is why humanity was created. It is our job to be partners with G-d. It is our job to gather the sparks together wherever they are hidden.

The shattering of the vessels echoes the story about the prior worlds, based on Isaiah, “For behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17). One of our mystical rabbis, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira who I studied this summer with Institute for Jewish Spirituality and who I quoted on Yom Kippur, connects this two stories together, “At the time of creation, God created worlds and destroyed them. The worlds that were created and those that were destroyed were the shattered vessels that God had sent forth. Out of those broken vessels God created the present universe.”

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shaira also teaches us to ask G-d directly, “Show me Your path.” It is a journey. Everything is a journey and it is about remembering that we are on that path, tied to G-d with a covenant, reminded of that covenant, that we are each holy vessels, with a sign.

Sometimes, we have a hard time finding that sign. Eli Wiesel of blessed memory tells this story:

“When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedyhe would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy. Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished. Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he pleaded with God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, the miracle was accomplished. When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story.That must be enough.” And, according to Eli Wiesel, “it was sufficient.”

May we each find the sign and the path. And may G-d remember the covenant to never, ever destroy the world again.

The Journey Through Holy Moments

I tried to prepare. I really did. All the way back in April when the choir started rehearsing. All the way back in May when the ritual committee met to begin to prepare. All the way back in June when I outlined these sermons, including this one. My colleagues were amazed. Outline your sermons in June? What if something happens in the world—which it did! I answered, “I am having a strange year” and I quoted another colleague who assures us High Holiday sermons should be timeless, not timely. All the way back in July when I started reading books that fit with the themes I wanted to discuss—the funny thing was they were all about the lifecycle. Nurture the Wow by Danya Ruttenberg, about parenting. Jewish Wedding Now, Anita Diamant’s recently updated New Jewish Wedding Book, and Wise Aging by Rachel Cowan which I would like to turn into an adult study series. And this little thin book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, by Alan Lew Alan. Wow! This little thin volume had been recommended by other rabbis and turns out to be a favorite of Peg’s. She reads it every year to get ready for these High Holidays.

A quote:

BEFORE WE BEGIN THIS JOURNEY, BEFORE WE WALK this map of the soul step by step, let’s first step back and take a look at the essential gesture of the journey; the single, consistent
movement that characterizes it from start to finish. I am speaking here of Teshuvah, a Hebrew word that we struggle to translate. We call it repentance. We call it return. We call it a turning. It is all of these things and none of these things. It is a word that points us to the realm beyond language, the realm of pure motion and form.

(Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 19). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.)

So according to the title of the book, I am not prepared. None of us are. None of us can be. This is what Yom Kippur is all about. And as the liturgy says it fills us with awe and dread, fear and trembling.

But it is OK—even if we are not prepared, we will davven the services, we will still read Torah, we will hear the haunting words of Isaiah and Jonah, we will hear the shofar, and yes, we will break our fast, together as a community. In between we have the opportunity to think, to meditate, to study. To refocus. To renew. To reconnect. To return. That’s what teshuvah is, return.

Yes, he continues: “Death, the destination of our journey through life, also heals. Think about that sentence for a moment. Death, the destination our our journey though life, also heals. I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about death. Especially last week when I thought at one point we almost lost Simon. It always strikes me as particularly poignant when a death comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When we have just intones unetaneh tokef, who shall life and who shall die and maybe, just maybe by some magic if we do the right combination of tefilah, prayer, teshuvah, return, and tzedakah, charity, we can somehow avert the decree.

“Teshuvah is the little death that connects us to the big one. Or as the Rambam says: The repentant should change his name, as if to say, I am another. I am not the same person who did these deeds. It is as if that person has died. This is why this day resembles a dress rehearsal for our death. (p. 28).

Yom Kippur is the day we all get to read our own obituary. It’s a dress rehearsal for our death. That’s why we wear a kittel, a shroudlike garment, on this day; why we refrain from life-affirming activities such as eating, drinking, and procreating. We are rehearsing the day of our death, because death, like Yom Kippur, atones. And what our tradition is affirming with these claims is the healing power of time. What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time— everything in the year, everything in our life— conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption (p. 29).

This is the interior work that Yom Kippur requires, that Yom Kippur demands.

As part of that interior work, part of my professional development I took a course from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality on Contemplative Prayer. I thought it would help with some of the initiatives we are exploring here at CKI. At first, I really didn’t like the class. I couldn’t find how it was directly relevant to our work together here. But was we settled into this four week seminar, it became clearer.

Just six easy steps to quiet your mine and connect with the Divine. A chance to reconnect, renew, return.

Six easy steps of the Piaseczner rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, best known for working with orphans in the Warsaw ghetto before he was deported with his students to his death at Auschwitz. His quieting practice aims to put the practitioners into direct contact with divinity. In fact, it aspires to make us prophets, conduits of divinity. It aims to quiet the ego, the sense of self, sufficiently so that the heavenly flow which is always already present can be genuinely received by the practitioner. It seeks, as perhaps all prayer does, to make us intimate with God.

  1. Sit: Establish your posture in a relaxed, open and confident way that will support your practice and your spine.
  2. Mindfulness: Begin to observe your breath, thoughts, emotions or any other particular aspect of your heart-mind-body-soul.
  3. Cultivating Holiness: Recite silently to yourself a word, verse or phrase that you choose to cultivate a sense of holiness within. Give it your full attention and full intention.
  4. Cultivating Positive Dispositions: Recite silently to yourself a phrase you choose to help cultivate a positive quality you want to work on. Do it softly and gently.
  5. Say silently or out loud: Sing “Show me, God, your path Horeni Adonai Derechecha” relinquishing control and opening yourself to what you might discover. It is a phrase that evokes the journey we are on!
  6. Sit in silence, “relinquish the passions and relax the will.”  Do nothing.  Rest in quiet trust within the vastness of God’s Nothingness.

About 20 minutes. That’s it. And rather than listening to someone else, you are in charge, you are in control of what phrases are meaningful, of how long you spend on each step, on what you want to work on.

Now in truth, I don’t see myself as a good meditator. Silence scares me. However, for me, that cultivating holiness step became a key component of the class . There was one singular moment, when trying to mediate I heard the words, “You are holy.” And the thing was that in English—it is not clear whether it was G-d saying to me that I am holy or it was me saying that G-d is holy. Who is the you? I think it is a both/and. Since I also don’t see myself as holy, it was very reassuring. It was, in fact, a holy moment.

And I then I heard something else: “You are enough.”

It is true. Each of us is enough. We have enough tools, skills, resources right in front of us. In Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen when she is talking to medical school students she tells a story of Carl Rogers.

“Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”

I am enough. Each of us in enough.

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.

What does it mean to be holy?

We usually translate it as set apart. The English, it usually means dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.

Today’s portion talks about some things we should do to be holy…

It’s a recipe for holiness. A checklist. For all of us, not just the priests. Speak to the whole congregation of Israel and say to them. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.

Fear your mother and your father. Keep My Sabbaths. Don’t turn to idols. Offer acceptable sacrifices. Leave the corners of your field for the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Don’t steal. Don’t deal falsely. Don’t lie. Don’t swear by My name. Don’t oppress your neighbor or rob him. Don’t hold the wages of a laborer overnight. Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. Don’t hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor. Don’t take vengeance. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And while the word kadosh means separate, it does not mean to separate ourselves from community. Hillel said, in Pirke Avot, Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place. Do not say something that cannot be understood but will be understood in the end. Say not: When I have time I will study because you may never have the time. (Pirke Avot 2:5)

Alan Lew has a little bit different spin on it. “Holiness is the great nothing that appears in all the religious traditions of the world in various poetic guises. It is an ineffable intensity, an oceanic sense, a warm flash of light, a marriage of the soul, a mighty wind of
resolution, a starry grace, a burning bush, a wide-stretching love, an abyss of pure simplicity, and as we have mentioned, it is the word the angels cry, the word that rings throughout heaven. In short, holiness is an all-encompassing emptiness. In short, holiness is heaven. (p. 122).

That’s what we are trying to obtain, right here on earth in these Days of Awe. It is also about getting our soul, our neshamah back:

“There is a story in the Torah about someone getting their nefesh back, although I use the word “someone” advisedly, because the someone in question is God. After six furious days of creating the world, the Torah says of God, Shavat vayinafash— God stopped and did nothing, or literally, God stopped and re-nefeshed himself, re-ensouled himself. So we get back to heaven by doing nothing. We reconnect with the nothing that gives our life meaning by stopping.”

That is Yom Kippur. The Shabbat of Shabbatot. The Sabbath of Sabbaths. Today. By stopping today and really resting, we get our souls back. By stopping today and pausing, we can find heaven. Here on earth. By stopping today and doing teshuvah, we can achieve holiness.

I spent the summer collecting examples of people being holy. As a rabbi, your rabbi, I am privileged to watch you rise above situations and turn them into holy moments. Here are just a few.

The Elgin Police Department lost a much beloved officer from natural causes this year. I went to the wake at Lairds and stood in line with hundreds in the hot sun. It seemed that Steve Jones touched everyone in the Elgin community. I know he made an impact on me. The entire police command staff were behind me in line. They could have pulled rank, quite literally, and cut the line but they chose to stand in line with their men (and women). However they are secure in their place and humble in their leadership. It was a holy moment. Full of compassion and grace. Not because they were obligated to but because it was the right thing to do. That’s leadership.

Later in the summer, again in my role as police chaplain I attended to a family that had just lost their husband. He had a massive heart attack and had fallen on the floor of the garage. After the body had been released to the funeral home, the Elgin Police force did something so remarkable, I get teary eyed. They washed the floor of the garage. No one told them to do so. Without saying a word, they just knew that they would not want their mom or their spouse to have to walk back in and be confronted with that mess. So they found the buckets and the hose and they just did it. This simple act, it was a holy moment. Full of compassion and grace.

In June, on the second day of Shavuot, I was called to Elmhurst Memorial Hospital as someone was dying. The family, mostly Catholic had already gathered and they wanted to say Jewish prayers for their husband, father and grandfather. The rabbi there had already sung misheberach, a prayer for healing of mind, body and spirit. I sang the last verse of Adon Olam. Then I realized that those prayers might not mean anything to the Catholics—especially in Hebrew—so I asked what they wanted to pray for. I was thinking maybe strength or patience or peace. They asked for the Lord’s Prayer, which we did. All together. Not because we were obligated to. It was a holy moment, filled with compassion and grace, because in that setting it was the right thing to do. We had a discussion about how the Lord’s Prayer is really a very Jewish prayer, and as a rabbi I have no issues saying it—and I know both the Protestant and Catholic versions—although I never quite remember which is which.


Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed it be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. It is either like the Kaddish, praising G-d for life or like Avinu Malkenu, Our Father our King. So even though it was June, not close to the High Holidays, we sang Avinu Malkenu. Gently. The rabbi and I, never having met, with harmony and all the right repeats in all the right places. And at the very last note, the patient, our congregant took his last breath. His wife leaned over and gently kissed his forward, and tears. It was a holy moment. Avinu Malkenu will never be the same for me.

Visiting another congregant in the hospital, I found the wife was sitting there, keeping herself busy by crocheting blankets for the Linus Project. It was something to keep herself busy—her hands and her mind—and why not? Again, not because she was obligated to. It was filled with grace and compassion and it too was a holy moment.

Another congregant recently donated her wedding gown to an organization  Marlene’s Angel Babies to be made into what they call “Angel gowns for babies born sleeping or who passed in the hospital.” Again, not because she was obligated to. The moment was filled with grace and compassion and those families who receive a gown for a still born will never forget it. It was a holy moment.

Another congregant appeared in my office just after we were home from Ann Arbor. She had a beautifully packed bag that included a bottle of wine for a l’chaim, some chocolate because that cures everything (and helps sermon writing), some coffee in case I run out, lox because she knew it was one of Simon’s favorites, and treats for the dog because you can’t forget the puppy as the note said. Again, she wasn’t obligated but that bag was filled with grace and compassion. It was a holy moment.

There are many of these moments here at CKI, I can’t possibly cite them all. They are part of our collective journey and how we create a holy community. Sometimes they are done deliberately anonymously…and that is OK. And sometimes I catch you in the act of being a mensch, a good person.

What do these moments have in common. They aren’t things you are obligated to do. They are things you do because you want to do them, not because you have to do them. They often times aren’t planned. They are over and above what is expected. No one told you that you had to do it.

It is each of us being holy—rising above and finding the divine in each moment.

Today is the day we refocus, we rehearse our deaths. How will you go the extra mile on your journey? How will you find holiness?

The Journey To Truth: Kol Nidre

Rabbi Simcha Bunem, a Hasidic master, used to say that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “Bishvili nivra ha-olam—for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “V’anokhi afar v’efer—I am but dust and ashes.” Two truths in his pocket.

When I was a girl, just having moved from Evanston to Grand Rapids, that first summer at Girl Scout camp, someone wanted to look for my horns. Some of you have told me similar stories, right here in Elgin. Some of you may be asking, “Horns?” Yes, it is one of the long held beliefs and misunderstandings about Jews. We have horns. They are hidden under our hair. And it is not, as we all know, true. It is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew about a verse the choir will sing shortly.

When Moses came back down the mountain with the second set of tablets, his face was glowing with rays of light. That word ray—keren—can also mean horn. A translation by Jerome, the patron saint of translators, whose saint day the Catholic world observes tomorrow, is why Michalangelo made his famous statue of Moses with horns. Here’s the problem—people use that image to argue that Jews are of the devil, since we all know that the devil has horns. Why do we know that? From Michaelango’s statue.

Translation is important. It can be nuanced. Every translation is a commentary. So this translation “error” was a huge commentary that has caused problems up until today.

But the very reason Moses’s face was beaming, glorified in another translation, is critical for this very night. Yom Kippur is the night that legend says Moses had just come back down the mountain, carrying the second set of tablets. He had just been in the presence of G-d and had just been taught the 13 Attributes of the Divine.

Sing it with me:
Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet. Nosei chesed l’alaphim. Nosei avon v’fesha v’chata’ah v’nakeh.

The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness and truth, extending kindness to the 1000th generation, pardoning iniquity, transgression and sin.

Yet, each of those words can be translated slightly differently.

Our own machzor translates emet as faithfulness, not as truth—although they are related words in Hebrew. Emet means truth. Emunah means faith. The word Amen, so may it be true, comes from the same root. Emet, Aleph, the first letter, men the middle letter and tav, the last letter. Truth. Another name for G-d. G-d is Truth.

For several years I have been bothered by a concept—what is truth?

Earlier tonight we read a reading from Gates of Prayer that I find haunting. Once we learned one truth and it was cherished or discarded.

Long before there were discussions about “fake news” there have been discussions about bias in the media. And truth in advertising, I was a journalist long ago—a founding editor of the Tufts Daily, a sports reporter, and headline writer. This got me press passes to see opening day of my beloved Red Sox, but I digress. There are at least two organizations which I support, Honest Reporting and CAMERA that deal with bias in reporting on Israel.

Long ago it used to be that there was a hard and fast rule that opinion was for the op-ed page not for the front page. We have blended those lines as a society. And there is a danger in that. When I am out of the country, I enjoy the listening to the news and reading the local papers. It gives me a wider perspective and a different sense of priorities. Listening or reading more than one source of news is important. FOX and CNN, NPR and the Wall Street Journal. We should not just get our news from our Facebook feed.

Disagreement is fine—it is even encouraged in Judaism—we all know the joke about two Jews and three opinions. No doubt, some of you will even disagree with me about this sermon or something else. I welcome those discussions and arguments, as long as they are done respectfully and for the sake of heaven.

How we disagree is important. We are taught that we should be careful with the words we speak. Speech is the category of sin that is most repeated, most atoned for during these 25 hours of Yom Kippur. It is what causes us to need to seek reconciliation. And we fail with our words over and over again. It maybe why some of us are hear tonight.

The Buddhists have a rule about speech. You should think twice before you speak. Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true? All three. And it turns out the order isn’t so important, just that all three conditions are met.

Repeat it—is it true?, is it necessary, is it kind. All three!

Recently there has been much discussion about the American flag and the National Anthem. For some of you the protests of African American football players are disrespectful and unpatriotic. Maybe you served in the military defending the rights that are represented by that flag. For others of you, your truth includes the fact that there is systemic, institutional racism in this country and you applaud this method of peaceful protest. That represents your truth.

It is true that there is racism in this country. And rising anti-semitism. The FBI statistics on hate crimes, much like blood pressure numbers, don’t lie. There are 32 confirmed hate groups in Illinois according to the SPLC. 32. One of those is alleged to be a KKK group in Gurnee? The mayor and the police chief, after investigating, believe that someone used a fake name and a fake address signing up with the KKK. Should the whole village be shamed, asks the mayor? They have asked to be removed from the 32. The Southern Poverty Law Center is still investigating. I am not certain of the truth.

It is true that (almost) every child in our Hebrew School 4th grade and up reports being the target of some anti-semetic joke being told in public school. We have written to 11 superintendents to remind them about the Illinois law protecting students’ rights to observe the high holidays. This year we added a paragraph that we are willing to be a resource on bullying. Every parent got a copy of this letter.

It is true that there was a Nazi flag at the Kane County Flea market last summer and multiple Confederate Flags in South Elgin last year. It is true that I can’t find any today. It is opinion what those flags represented. Were they really about war memorabilia and “our southern heritage” as their owners have suggested?

It is true that after Charlottesville, many of us felt our fear levels increase. It is also true that we had already written a grant and received it from Jewish United Fund to supplement our security here at CKI.

It is also true that I don’t think we, as Jews, have a big problem here in Elgin. We have worked tirelessly to build relationships with other churches, with city officials, with the police and fire departments. Should there be a problem, and there could be, then unlike Charlottesville where the synagogue was inadequately protected by the Charlottesville police, I know that we would be. And I want to publicly thank our officer for being here tonight. I know that the churches and mosques that are apart of the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders (CERL) and the Elgin Human Relations Commission would once again step up, as they did after the Pulse Night Club shooting and after Charlottesville. And I know that I can count specifically on our partners—Holy Trinity, especially, to open their doors. Their pastor, Jeff Mikyska and his wife Gail are here tonight, just as I was at their Easter Sunday service. We welcome them as our neighbors and our friends. They asked the hard question all the way back in January, what would they do if something happened to the synagogue. Unanimously, their parish council voted to open their doors to us.. This is my truth. Our truth.

It is reassuring but it doesn’t mean our work is done. We still have work to do to right wrongs. To do teshuvah around this important topic. We still have work to do to combat fear that leads to racism, even here at CKI. We pride ourselves on embracing diversity as part of our vision and yet wonder if this one or that one truly belongs, or whether the neighborhood is safe. Pirke Avot teaches, “Ours is not to finish the task, neither are we free to ignore it.”

Here’s where the work still needs to be done. How many of you grew up with another truth—that the G-d of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible was a zealous G-d and the G-d of the New Testament is the G-d of love.

That G-d is the same G-d, it turns out. There is only one G-d. It is dangerous when people cherry pick verses, when we prooftext. When we do that we take things out of context and only arrive at half-truths or partial truths. Our verse, the one the choir is about to sing, is clear that G-d is a loving G-d. It is simple, no? But these myths persist.

I hope that you noticed the signs when you walked in this evening. They are from the First Congregational Church down the street, an important partner in ministry. Under the leadership of the Rev. Paris Donohoo and Lois Bucher and some lay leaders like Judge John Dalton and Rich Jacobs, They are embarking on a three year campaign, Live Love, Stop the Hate. And they chose a verse from the New Testament, “Love never fails” from the book of Corinthians. There is much Judaism and Christianity has in common. Including this idea of love. You have heard me say it before. 36 times in the Torah it says to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the most marginalized amongst us. It is simple. Love G-d. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger.

These signs are part of their response to Charlottesville. But it runs deeper than that. They want to really understand their neighbor—their immigrant neighbor, their LGBTQ neighbor, their Muslim neighbor and yes, their Jewish neighbor. It is driven from the verse “Love Never Fails.” We will be joining their campaign with a slightly different graphic. Ours will say, “Love Your Neighbor”. Tonight, to start this, we have for each of you a pin that says, “No Place for Hate” from the ADL.

I am delighted that Stew was so moved by this important verse that he wrote his own four part choral arrangement of it. When he tells the story, he sat down at the keyboard and tinkered, and behold! There it was. I call that divine inspiration. Until this year, it has not been heard.

It emphasizes that G-d is the G-d of truth. Some might argue that it is not kosher because it rearranges the order of words. Nonsense. The rabbis of the Talmud had exactly that argument. Ilfi (or, as some report, Ilfa, they can’t even agree on that!) contrasted two texts: It is written, abundant in lovingkindness, and then it is written, and in truth. (Ex. 34:6) [How is this]? — At first, ‘truth’, and at the end ‘abundant in goodness’.

So which is it? G-d of Truth or G-d of Love? Two truths in our pockets. Both/and.

Stew’s interpretation is actually Talmudic. And OKed by me. It has my hechsher. My seal of approval.

Perhaps when you hear it, you will love it. Perhaps not. That will be your truth. Once an older congregant went to her cantor and said, “I wish you would sing the right Adon Olam.” He asked her which one she did like. She answered that she liked the traditional one. Usually that means the one you grew up with. There are really very few pieces of Jewish music that go all the way back to Sinai. The rabbis argue about that too. They are actually called tunes mi-Sinai, from Sinai. Maybe there are six. Maybe there are 10. That is shrouded in mystery, in midrash, in legend.. Adonai, Adonai that we usually sing isn’t one of them. It is only 200 years old roughly.

The choir tells me that this is a very difficult, complex piece with very tight harmonies. They have worked very hard on mastering it and perfecting it. I remind them, and our religious school students frequently, leading services is about being the messenger of the people to G-d, the shaliach tzibur, it is not a performance. This piece will carry our prayers to G-d on the whisper of wings.

Tonight is the only night of the year we wear a tallit. The midrash about our verse is that even G-d wears a tallit, we acknowledge this when we say before putting on our tallit, “Bless Adonai, my soul! Adonai my G-d, how great You are, clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in light like a robe, like a tallit. You spread out the heavens like a tent.”

When G-d taught these very words to Moses, the Holy One drew his robe around him like the shalich tzibur, the leader of the congregation and showed Moses the order of prayer.

This became the central prayer of the High Holidays.

We started a journey on Rosh Hashanah which we are continuing all year. The rabbis ask how is it possible to walk with G-d. They circle back to this very verse. For me, this is the central truth of Torah—my Torah. To walk with G-d, is to walk in G-d’s ways, to be like G-d. These are the ways of the Holy One, “gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and truth, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin and granting pardon (Exodus 34:6). Just as G-d is gracious, you too must be gracious. Just as G-d is compassionate, you too must be compassionate. Just as G-d clothed the naked, you should clothe the naked. Just as G-d visited the sick, you should visit the sick. Just as G-d fed the hungry, you should feed the hungry. Just as G-d buried the dead, you should bury the dead.”

And like G-d we must be forgiving. That is part of the journey too. The rabbis ask why does it repeat, Adonai, Adonai. And they answer their own question, because G-d forgives us before we sin and after we sin. G-d loves us before the sin and after the sin. We must learn to do this too. Forgive the person before they sin and after they sin. Love the person before they sin and after they sin—even if that person we must forgive is ourselves.

Two truths in our pockets. We are but ashes and dust. And for us the world was created. Two truths in our pocket. G-d is full of lovingkindness and truth. Two truths in our pocket. Love your neighbor and the stranger. Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d. May you find the truths you can carry in your pocket as we pause for the next 25 hours and reflect.