Joy in a Hurricane? Ki Tavo

Today’s Torah portion contains part of the Haggadah. My ancestors were wandering Arameans. And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Because we remember being strangers in the Land of Egypt, we are to take care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Because we stood at the shores of the sea and saw the power and might, we know the fear that water can bring.

Indulge me for a moment. Every year I play a game at our seder table. I often do it with the kids in Hebrew School too. I am going on a journey, I am leaving Egypt and I am bringing with me an apple, a banana, a canteen. Now seriously, like many of our ancestors, who didn’t have much time to pack, what would you take? While a game, it is all too serious this morning. Difficult as it might be, what would you take. For real. Food, water, medicine. Photos, computers, books. Children. Seniors. Pets. Important papers. Jewelry. Do you know where they are? Could you grab them quickly? That’s what the Israelites had to do. That’s what our ancestors had to do when they were fleeing pogroms, when they left Europe quickly. That’s what our friends and families are confronting this very morning as they are fleeing the approaching storm.

This morning’s portion is about restoration—about renewal—about entering the land—after Egypt or after the Exile. We are told that it is a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Eretz zavat chalav.

Our American ancestors thought this was a good land. A land flowing with milk and honey, with all sorts of natural resources. A good land. And beginning tomorrow night, or the night after that, the people of Florida—and Texas—and the Pacific Northwest will begin again. The process of rebuilding and restoration will begin.

Here, this morning, we are engaged in the exercise of prayer. Gates of Prayer has a quote that seems the most relevant.

Prayer invites the Eternal Presence to suffuse or spirits and let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in Gates of Prayer

So when my appeal goes out about donating money to help that rebuilding process, consider giving generously. That is how we will rebuild. Florida. Texas. The Western Wildfires. The Mexico Earthquake. The flooding in Bangladesh, India, Nepal.

In the next few days, weeks, you will read all sorts of what I consider bad theology. These events are not some kind of Divine punishment for sins we can only imagine.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe that G-d causes these events as some kind of Divine retribution or wrath. I don’t believe, as Kirk Cameron suggested on social media, that G-d brings us these things to teach us humility and repentance. Nor compassion. I

What then, is the role of prayer?

Was anybody beside me up the other night at exactly the right time to see a shooting star? It was about 1:30 AM and I was surprised. Usually we can predict them and we know about the meteor shower in August and then again in November. I love to watch them. Sitting out on my deck or lying on a beach in northern Michigan on the shores of the big lake. But this one caught me by surprised. Wow, I said, this is awesome.

Maybe that’s why there is a blessing for a shooting star—or a meteor—or a comet. But while I was still out walking I remembered that the blessing is the same for a hurricane. I hurried home to make sure my memory was correct.

A hurricane and a shooting star? One is beautiful. The other is, well quite, frankly, destructive. Why would you bless the same thing on a shooting star and a hurricane? They are both awesome. A display of G-d’s power and might, of natural beauty. Both engendered fear in the ancients. Is there any good in a hurricane? The only thing I could come up with is in how people come together in the wake of the hurricane.

About the same time, someone wondered what the difference is between cancer and a hurricane. This UCC pastor Budd Friend Jones who was in McHenry but recently moved with his wife to Florida, a deep thinker, sounded very Israeli in his conclusion. “Either we survive, or we don’t. We have good neighbors here. We hope to be good neighbors. We deeply appreciate knowing of your concern.”

I have been struggling with the idea that we are lucky because Simon is now deemed cancer free. How is that possible? Why do we deserve this luck when so many don’t? Partly because we made some smart choices and he had good medical care. As many of you know, I pray for skilled and compassionate care teams. Doctors, nurses, aides, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, residents, internists, food service people and even the ones that sweep the floors. You need all of them! But I don’t think G-d gave Simon cancer. I don’t believe that G-d never gives us any more than we can bear. I do think we are lucky, fortunate that it would appear he will have the best possible outcome.

It doesn’t feel like we should celebrate. How can we celebrate when so many are struggling? How can I rejoice when so many are facing this hurricane—and that whole host of other tragedies? Are we really blessed?

I can’t pray to heal Simon and while others will not be. There have been some jokes, at least I hope they are jokes, that Mar-a-lago should be hit, or Rush Limburgh’s property. I cannot do that. I cannot wish for some to be spared and others not.

Then I remembered that there is a section of the Talmud that tells us that if we hear a siren we cannot pray that it should not be our house. It is already someone’s house. Someone is about to go through a tragedy—a fire or a medical emergency. It is already happening. We can’t stop it now. It seems relevant.

But I was thinking, really—sirens? In the Talmud? How can I even construct a search to find this passage? With the help of my classmates, I found it. One even responded from Florida! And it turns out to be even more appropriate than I thought.

Mishnah Berachot 9 that talks about this. It describes a tefilat shav, a prayer that is in vain. The Talmud examples are “May it be Your will that my wife give birth to a boy.” Already determined. Or “If he was coming on the way and heard the sound of screaming in the city and he said, ‘May it be your will that these are not my children,’ this is a prayer in vain.”

The end of the quote from Gates of Prayer is, “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers are answered.” May we rise as better people this morning.

Think none of this can happen here—that we are immune in Illinois? Perhaps to a direct hit of a hurricane. In 1920 there was a tornado that took out much of downtown Elgin, on a Sunday morning, Palm Sunday, just as people were leaving church. And it was only July when we had flooding, even in my neighborhood. At that point there was a lot of discussion about how we respond to natural disaster. It was really a continuation of a conversation that began even before Ferguson. My partner and friend across the street, Pastor Jeff Mikyska, has a foundation that distributes toys to children affected by these kinds of events. He attends every MARC meeting after a disaster where agencies help families begin to rebuild their lives. He cares passionately about these kinds of things and all the way back in January he went to his board and said that the synagogue might be at risk…and what were they going to do to protect us. There will be an exchange of keys and codes and our students—all of us, really, will be trained as part of tornado drills and fire drills to exit our building and go to theirs. I get teary eyed thinking about it. That’s loving your neighbor as yourself at the highest level. That’s what we exhibited when our president opened our building to the families next door when there was a fire.

I said at the beginning of this sermon, that this is a week of restoration. When this storm is over it will be time to rebuild and restore. This season is one of teshuvah, of repentance and return. Of reconciliation and restoration.

“Like water, teshuvah is both destructive and creative. It dissolves the person you were but simultaneously provides the moisture you need to grow anew. It erodes the hard edges of your willfulness but also refreshens your spirit. It can turn the tallest barriers of moral blindness into rubble while it also gently nourishes the hidden seeds of hope buried deep in your soul. Teshuvah, like water, has the power both to wash away past sin and to shower you with the blessing of a new future, if only you trust it and allow yourself to be carried along in its current.”

Louis Newman

We are seeing the destructive power of water. May we again see its beauty and creativity. May this storm provide opportunities for safety, for security, for loving our neighbors and the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the most marginalized among us with a sukkat shalom, a shelter of Your peace. May we find ways to help and to restore, to renew and revitalize.

Love G-d, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the stranger, the widow, the orphan.

Three prayers for a hurricane:

From Rabbi Fred Guttman

Avinu Shebashamyim:

God of the heavens: nature and all that You have created are truly awesome. Often, we; take these wonders for granted. Teach us to cherish all of your gifts.

Try as we might, we know that we cannot control the oceans, the mountains, the weather. We also firmly believe that ever since the time of Noah, You do not send floods, make the earth shake, or dispatch weather formations, such as hurricanes, as warnings or punishments.

So we ask, as this hurricane approaches land and approaching our brothers and sisters, that You shelter all who will be in its path. Watch over everyone, their loved ones, friends, and fellow people, many of whom are preparing to evacuate. Guard them as they prepare, perhaps to leave their homes again. Give them strength, courage, and resolve to ride out this storm; answer their prayers and ours that they be blessed with goodness and be spared from harm.

Baruch ata Adonai, Elohanu Melech Haolam she kocho u-gevurato maleh olam.

Blessed are You, Source of Life and Nature, whose awesome power and strength fill our world and inspire us to be strong in the face of all of life’s difficulties.

From Rabbi Naomi Levy:

From Alden Solovny:

Finding Joy in Sight: Re’ah

Warning—this is not a political sermon. I need Shabbat to be Shabbat. It could be but it is not. If you want to discuss the politics of the week, I am fine with engaging in that over Kiddush. If you want to see my words from yesterday’s rally on City Hall Plaza, they are available here:

Seeing is believing, right? We’ve all heard that phrase. But what if we see something incorrectly? There are all kinds of stories about expert “testimony” at court cases. Once in Grand Rapids the mystery book group, together with the library and my parents’ bookstore, did an event that included someone to teach how to provide eyewitness testimony. The Grand Rapids Press reporter then got all the details wrong for the “crime” that happened outside the bookstore. She saw what she wanted to see, right? Seeing is believing, right?

The sun is going to disappear on Monday. It is going to be hidden. The Chinese thought that a dragon was eating the moon. The Romans thought that the sun was poisoned and dying. Universally, they were seen as a time of fear.

Jews understood that the moon was passing between the sun and earth creating that shadow. And while I am fond of saying that there is a blessing for everything in Judaism, apparently, there is no blessing for an eclipse, while there is for hail, rain, rainbows, flowers. All sorts of natural wonders. But not an eclipse.

The rabbis knew about eclipses. They could even accurately predict them, well into the future. Rambam, the famous commentator was a rabbi, a physician and an astronomer.

The rabbis even believe that they are mentioned all the way back in Genesis One in the description of the Creation. “And G-d said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens…and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.” Rashi, the medieval commentator told us that “for signs” referred to when the luminaries are eclipsed and that “this is an unfavorable omen for the world.”

But while some argued we should be afraid, Rashi actually concludes his commentary with words of comfort, from Jeremiah, who I find the least comforting of the prophets, As it is said, ‘And from the signs of heaven be not dismayed, etc. (Jeremiah 10:2). When you perform the will of the Holy One, you need not fear retribution.”

This brings us right to this week’s portion. The first word of today’s potion is “Re’ah, See.” “See, I set before you blessing and curse.” How do we know what the blessing is? How do we know what the curse is? How do we tell the difference?

Sometimes the blessing seems hidden, just like the sun will be on Monday. Sometimes G-d seems hidden, just like the sun will be on Monday.

We get to choose. Blessing or curse. It is a matter of free will.

Many periods of time have seemed dark for the Jews. Perhaps you even think this is a dark period. Perhaps you even think this is a dark period in your own life.

In Judaism we have the idea of Hester Panim, the hidden face of G-d. G-d is not present in the Book of Esther—hidden from view. Esther’s own name means hidden and she is hidden in the palace—in plain view. She rises to the occasion and heeds Mordechai’s call. “Think not of yourself…that you will escape in the king’s house. For if you keep silent in these times, then relief and deliverance will come from another place…and who knows, perhaps you are in this place for such a time as this.”

We are heading into the High Holiday period, a time of introspection and reflection. On Rosh Hodesh Elul, 40 days from Yom Kippur we begin by adding a shofar blast and Psalm 27.

Psalm 27 tells us the Lord is my light and my help. Who shall I fear…Hide not Your Presence from me…”

This Psalm reminds me of the song that Debbie Friedman wrote, Al Tatsir, Don’t Hide Your Face from Me.

Don’t hide Your face from me;
I’m asking for Your help.
I call to You, please hear my prayers, 0 G-d.
If you would answer me, as I have called to You
Please heal me now, don’t hide Your face from me.
Debbie Friedman

We want G-d to be present in our lives. We don’t want G-d to be hidden. And it feels that G-d may be hidden especially in difficult times. When we need healing. When we are scared. We don’t want to feel abandoned by G-d.

There is an irony in our text. You cannot see the face of G-d and live. You cannot look at the eclipse and keep your sight. It is too blinding. Moses speaks to G-d face to face at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. At the Mishkan. Moses is hidden in the cleft of the rock and all G-d’s goodness passes before him. Moses sees G-d’s backside, whatever that means. And yet, at the end of Deuteronomy, we are told that, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

How is that possible? And what does that mean for us? Maybe G-d’s presence is always a little bit hidden. Like the wind. We can’t see it but we can feel it’s presence and we can see the trees sway in the breeze.

And yet, we still pray the priestly benediction, the Birkat Hacohanim, “May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d’s face shine upon you. May G-d’s face turn toward you and give you peace.” In traditional congregations when the blessing is proclaimed, the congregation doesn’t even look at the cohanim. They avert their eyes so they will not be blinded.

Perhaps Alan Zeichick, a lay leader and former North American board member of the Reform movement, captured it best in his poem he wrote for Selichot after seeing a partial eclipse:

Before I Die, I Want to Know the Face of G-d:

Every day, I see the Face of the Sun.
Before I die, I want to know the Face of God.

The Face of God is like the Face of the Sun.
The Face of God is not like the Face of the Sun.

The Sun is 93 million miles away, its light and warmth are everywhere.
God is both far away and nearby at the same time.

The Sun nurtures us, yet does not know we exist.
God nurtures us and God created us.

Astronomers and physicists struggle to understand the Sun.
Rabbis and philosophers struggle to understand God.

To touch the Sun would be to die instantly.
We touch God and God touches us every day.

To stare directly at the Sun without protective lenses is to risk blindness.
Exodus 33:20: God says “You will not be able to see My Face, for man shall not see Me and live.”

The Sun has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions more.
God has always existed and always will exist.

The Sun is so bright it washes away the stars.
God’s light, the Shechinah, illuminates the deepest darkness.

The Sun warms the Earth even at night when we do not see.
God warms our souls even when we do not believe.

The Sun’s light consists of photons, which are simultaneously particles and waves.
God’s light of creation, the ohr ein sof, is limitless spiritual energy.

The Sun appears unchanging yet sunspots and flares show that it does change.
God appears unchanging yet Torah teaches that God does change.

The Sun exists through the tension between gravity and nuclear fusion.
God exists because God exists.

I always know that the Sun exists.
Some days, I am not sure that God exists.

The Sun’s energy comes from hydrogen fusing into helium.
The Sun’s energy comes from God.

Life is impossible without the Sun.
Life is unimaginable without God.

With the right camera and filters, I can photograph the Sun.
With the right teachers, I can study God and be enlightened.

Every day, I can see the Face of the Sun.
Before I die, I want to know the Face of God.

We can see the hidden face of G-d, in the beauty that surrounds us. In the wonder of G-d’s glorious creation. A physicist at MIT, Gerald Schoeder, has even written a book, The Hidden Face of G-d, to explain how science shows us the ultimate truth. That is a sermon for another time, but the title is just right for this sermon.

We can see the face of G-d. Even when we are the most stressed. Ultimately I agree with the organization, Positive Judaism who reminds us of Psalm 139:12, “Even the darkness is not too dark for You, and the night is as bright as the day.”

We are told that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of G-d. Each of us, therefore has that divine spark inside of us. So Les Mis had it right, “To love another person is to see the face of G-d.” Like Alan said in his poem, before I die I want to know the face of G-d. Even in these dark times. Especially in these dark times. Come join me, as together we search for it.

Finding Joy In Protest

This past week has been difficult for the Jewish community. My phone rang last Shabbat, even before Shabbat was over with the news about how the Neo-nazi, KKK, white supremacist march had turned deadly in Charlottesville.

Oh, no, I thought, as I silently prayed. I have friends, rabbis and ministers who went to Charlottesville, heading the call to non-violent protest. Oh, no, I thought, my brother went to University of Virginia. How can this be happening.

And the question was, what would we do in Elgin. What could we do?

What we do best. We came together as a community. Not once, but twice. Once, a quiet candlelight vigil. Once a rally on city hall plaza. The process of putting events together like this is one of patience and negotiation. And trust. And humor. And a beer later.

There are many memories created on Friday. An impromptu prayer circle lead by Pastor Katie Shaw Thompson. My rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Kohn, choked with emotion reading the Prayer for Our Country, My congregant Mark Seigle talking about his family’s journey to Elgin. Every speaker seemed to have exactly the right words to say. Mayor Kaptain, Chief Swaboda, Representative Anna Moeller, Junaid Afeef, Pastor Jeff Mikyska and Joyce Fountain. Ed Hanson’s chants were spot on. Danise Habun coordinated and emceed perfectly.

What follows are my words at the rally:

I want to introduce you to my good friend, Pastor Jeff Mikyska. He is the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran across the street from CKI and he has become a good partner in ministry and a good friend. We have spent many hours talking about these kinds of issues and he has offered his building as a refuge, G-d forbid anything like Charlottesville happens here. Together we are hosting Elgin’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service sponsored by the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders and it will take place in both buildings.

This may surprise you—but doing this kind of speaking has me out of my comfort zone. Maybe attending has some of you out of yours. And this kind of rally—while we put it together quickly, doesn’t happen over night. It happens because people have been working together to build relationships and trust for a very long time. So when the phone rang on Saturday…I was touched but not surprised and yes, of course, Elgin would do something.

My parents didn’t want me to be a rabbi. They were afraid. Very afraid. They were not Holocaust survivors but they lived through World War II. They had heard the vitriol of Father Coughlin. They had seen, I had seen the goosestepping German bund on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My mother ran for park commissioner in Evanston after she was told that the swings were not up in the park because “those people” might sit on them. Then she had a knife drawn on her by a member of the John Birch Society—a known hate group. When we moved to Grand Rapids, I had fellow Girl Scouts look for my horns. My parents were clear—anti-semitism and racism is real. Anti-semitism and racism, even today, are everywhere. As Jews we should not rock the boat. As Jews we have an obligation to speak up. To stand up. My parents stood up.

Being a rabbi would be too visible. I would be too likely a target. I didn’t listen to them. Because in Judaism, I found another model. I learned about Edmund Flegg who said,

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.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; we are completing it.
I learned about Anne Frank who said,

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart… I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right….”

And Eli Wiesel, who said when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize,

“And then i explain that the world did know and remained silent. and that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”

Those words ring so true today. Never again. Never be silent. Take sides. Stand up and be counted. Stand up for the victims. They are the core of who I am as a person, as a Jew and as a rabbi. I am compelled to stand up and to hope.

We can’t be naïve—or turn a blind eye. This is not something that only happens in Virginia. The very weekend last year that Elie Wiesel died, Fourth of July Weekend, a Nazi flag was displayed at the Kane County Flea Market. It was only war memoriabilia, we were told. A quick search of the purveyor’s website confirmed that he was a avowed white supremacist.  Do not be naïve.

Sadly, there is not a Hebrew School student over 5th grade who hasn’t had some issue with anti-semitism. U46, Districts 220, 300, 301, 303, 220, and Elgin Academy. Jokes about pizza ovens are not funny. Throwing pennies at Jews is not funny. Looking for our horns is not funny. These play on old stereotypes—the very stereotypes that lead to the beliefs that the white supremacists use—the very words we heard last weekend.

But there is hope. The hope comes from all of you. What you have done by coming today, taking time out of your busy schedules, is to stand up. To stand up bigotry. To racism. To anti-semitism. To Islamaphobia. To Homophobia. To stand up and say there is no place for the KKK, Neo-Nazis or White Supremacy here in Elgin.

And I stood in this very place a little over a year ago after the Pulse Night Club murders, with many of you. I prayed that we would never, ever have to stand here again. I was wrong. My prayer was not effective. Because here we are again. Because we can not stand by while our neighbor bleeds. We cannot stand by without taking sides. We need to be clear. There is no place here for hate.


I ask for a moment of silence for all the victims of violence. For Heather Heyer and others who were injured in Charlottesville. For those on the streets of Chicago. For those right here in Elgin. For those in Barcelona. Wherever there are victims of violence.

Take this pledge with us:

Today I pledge to #StandUp against Hate and #StandUp for Respect.
I will:

  • Unite with diverse communities & educate myself on how to be an effective ally
  • Protect my neighbors by building welcoming communities

Thank you.

Finding Joy in Contemplation

Summertime.. Time takes on a different quality. More relaxed. More expansive. Four weeks stretching out. Eight weeks before the Jewish holidays. Longer days. A chance to read. To write. To run.

In June I took a four-week class on Contemplative Jewish Prayer offered by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality as part of my own professional development. I am committed to the concept of life long learning and modeling my own learning, study and growth. It was online class with lots of time built in for reflection, meditation, practice. Because practice is important to learning a new form of prayer. It is even called “practice”.

I don’t know really what I was expecting. A way for me to davven? A chance to refresh my soul? Some new skills I could share with the congregation? A way to take our “Mishkan” initiative to the next level? I was excited to try something new. And to learn more about the Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe.

I had read part of his book, “Conscious Community” in rabbinical school and have ordered a copy of it because of this class. More on that later. I was anxious to learn his technique of prayer in light of his love of community. Perhaps, Reb Kalonymus is most known for his work in the Warsaw Ghetto, comforting his students, many of whom became orphans during the war. He accompanied his few remaining students on a train to concentration camps where he and the majority of his remaining students were murdered Twalina in the fall of 1943.

The class began with us watching a video on Sunday morning so we would be ready to begin our “practice” on Monday morning. The Paseczener Rebbe has what he calls a “Quieting Technique.”

It is not very complicated—that’s a good thing! And it fits well within my own spiritual practice. After studying some texts that one of his students wrote, it was time to try.

Just a few steps. Twenty minutes:

  1. Sit. Find a comfortable, relaxed position. Most people sit with their feet on the floor, hands in their lap, shoulders relaxed and spine straight.
  2. Be mindful. Observe your breath, thoughts, emotions and any connections between heart-mind-body-soul. Without judgment.
  3. Holiness. Recite silently a word, verse, or phrase that will cultivate a sense of holiness within you. Give it your full intention and full attention.
  4. Positive Quality. Recite a phrase you have chose to cultivate the positive quality you have elected to cultivate. Do it softly and gently, surrendering to the words.
  5. Surrender. Sing “Show me Your Way, O, God. Horeinu HaShem Darkekha.
  6. Rest. End by sitting in silence, resting in quiet trust.

The first day I found myself fighting against it. I had hoped that this class would provide instant tools that I could use with my congregation on Saturday mornings. This practice is an individual practice and not really for congregational use.

But spiritual practice is exactly that. Practice. It requires discipline. It requires work. And my prayer practice needed refreshing. And practically speaking, I paid for it. Maybe I’ll get something for me. Maybe that is the wrong approach. Am I supposed to get something out of prayer?

So I faithfully began to practice. To sit quietly. To notice what was coming up for me.

Meditation has always been difficult for me. I fall asleep. I am afraid of what might come up, the depth of the emotions. I worry that I won’t come back. I worry that I will start to cry and not stop.

But OK, I’m in. I’ll give it my best shot.

My word about holiness began simply as “Kadosh”, holy. In the second week I changed my word to “You are holy.” And as I meditating I realized that in English, which I was using, “You are holy,” isn’t clear. Does it mean, “You, G-d, are holy,” or is G-d saying to me, “You are holy.”

There was something very important, very powerful about that shift. That understanding that in fact, it can be both. G-d is holy and I am holy. It was a holy moment. It reflects the verse in Leviticus 19, “You shall be holy, because I the Lord, your G-d am holy.” But I don’t usually see myself as holy.

I had decided even before starting this class, that I would do one sermon for the high holidays on holy moments. It fits with my Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session on finding sacred time and place. So I have been collecting holy moments, stories of people being good, being holy.

I found as the week continued I found holiness everywhere I went. You will have to wait for the High Holidays to hear more about that.

One week we added inspiration from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. I have long incorporated his spirituality as part of my own. He struggled with depression but wrote extensively about joy. He taught that “Kol Ha’olam Kulu…All the world is a narrow bridge. The central thing is to not be afraid.” And he taught about the importance of spending time outdoors in nature pouring out our hearts to G-d.

I had wondered about that connection in the beginning part. Part of my morning ritual—spiritual practice if you will, based on Rebbe Nachman, is precisely that. Being outdoors, walking or running and pouring out my heart to G-d. I am much more able to focus on my connection to G-d when I am outside and alone, following Nachman’s practice. It is not unlike walking a labyrinth. I have enjoyed exploring walking meditations both, guided and unguided.

Over Shabbat I had the opportunity to teach Rebbe Nachman’s Kol Ha’olam Kulu in three modalities. At Shabbat on the Road in a neighborhood park there was a narrow bridge, so we crossed it and sang it. On Shabbat morning, I taught it inside as part of the Pesukei D’zimra and then used it as the end of the sermon. Finally, on Shabbat afternoon, I went walking with a dear friend, a black Baptist lawyer. I didn’t know she had a fear of heights. She was afraid to cross a bridge on our walk along the river. So I taught her about Rebbe Nachman!

I wondered about the difference between a silent practice and speaking the words out-loud. Sometimes I find it helpful to say the words out-loud. The root for this is a complicated argument in the Talmud, Berachot 15 which talks about whether your ear must hear what your mouth is saying in order to be fulfilled in your obligation to pray. It made sense to me and it mirrors my understanding of active listening and the therapeutic process. Having to say the words out-loud and having someone hear them concretizes them. Sometimes it feels like prayer when I pour out my soul.

I have been thinking a lot about hearing this summer. My husband is undergoing chemotherapy and has lost much of his hearing as a result. He is deeply spiritual. More so than me. It is part of why I married him and part of what I love about him. But if his ears can’t hear what his mouth is saying, I am sure that he is still praying!

The next week I had another holy moment. Early, early in the morning, I went walking with the dog. Silently around the block. It gave me the opportunity to think. To pray? To be grateful for the early morning coolness and the fresh air. In the back of my head I could hear the strains of Debbie Friedman’s version of Reb Nachman’s prayer. It had been a hard day. My husband had to return to the doctor with a foot infection. It was so swollen and painful he couldn’t walk, not even to the bathroom. He crawled. So I sat at the hospital trying to pray while he underwent a scan to make sure it was not a blood clot. It wasn’t. But I came up empty. Later I was dealing with a young woman at end of life who wanted to commit suicide. Again, I tried to pray. Again, I came up empty. Then I was listening to a friend who is dealing with sexuality issues. Again, I tried to pray. To center myself. And, again I came up empty.

Yet each of these moments were holy moments. And in each moment, even though it felt empty, it was enough.

Here is that waking/walking thought. Our practice in class has been to say, “May I be blessed with…,” what ever we feel we need. My usual practice is to pray for others. May my husband be blessed with courage and strength. May he be surrounded by love and a skilled and compassionate care team. May that young woman be blessed with peace. May my friend be blessed with assurance and safety.” Those are prayers.

I am not sued to praying for myself. How can I pray for myself when the needs of others are so great? Isn’t it selfish? Or is it like the oxygen mask. You have to pray for yourself before you pray for others.

The thought came while walking that if the goal of Jewish spirituality is unity with the Divine, or in Hebrew “devekut,” cleaving to the Divine, then we have to diminish ourselves. Yet, in a class on mussar, the development of character traits, we learned about balance when talking about humility. We need to be humble but not be door mats. So there is a tension and a need for balance. May I be blessed…may we all be blessed.

The last Shabbat of the class, it occurred to me that I am living out a Chasidic story told in a Reform Movement prayerbook. Paraphrased, “When asked what he did before he prayed, the rebbe answered, he prayed that he might be able to pray.” On Shabbat morning, when I walked up and down the pews, straightening the prayer books and getting the sanctuary ready, I am praying. I am praying that I might be worthy. That my prayers might be listened to. That my sermon might be meaningful. That I am enough.

The very last day of class, our good friend Jack, a Catholic priest, went to an ice cream social meet and greet for the new director of Interfaith Family Chicago. After it was over, we explored the Bahai Temple in Wilmette. Quite a fascinating structure. Beautiful. And the sanctuary, open to the public, is filled with peace. Each of chose a different place to sit. I tried to practice my practice.

What I received was “All is holy.” Like the prayer Yotzer Or which praises G-d for creating light and forming darkness, for making peace and creating all things. All is holy. All means all. It was yet another holy moment.

Rosh Hodesh Av: No Joy This Year

Today is Rosh Hodesh Av. Today we start the intense period of mourning for the destruction of the Temples that culminates on Tisha B’av.

Tisha B’av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. A full fast day. A day of profound grief.

Every year I think that I won’t observe Tisha B’av. What are we mourning for. Those acts happened thousands of year ago. They are not relevant any more.

Except they are. Every single year during the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’av there is something that takes my breath away. Something that causes me to think deeply about my relationship to Israel. Something that makes me weep. This year is no exception. This year there is too much.

On Friday night, as a family was gathered around their Shabbat table celebrating Shabbat and the birth of a new grandson, there was a knock on the door. The door was unlocked. A man walked in, murdering three and severely injuring the wife. There is NO justification for this.


While I was at a shiva house for a woman who died at 104, I mentioned the three Israelis as well at Kaddish. Rabbi Menachem Creditor is in Israel and was able to pay a shiva call. As he said in a post published today by the Huffington Post, “There are no words. Ain Milim.

He went, quite simply because, as he said, it is what rabbis do. It is what Jews do. Whenever there is a loss, we gather. I echo what Menachem said, despite having no words:

“And: The slaughter of a Jewish family at their own Shabbat table is an unutterable act of evil, as would be any act of terror against any family of any kind in their home. Or anyone. Or anywhere. Terrorism is beyond rationalizing. Murder is not contextualizable. To frame the murders of the Salomons as understandable in any way, as some might be inclined to do, is not only insensitive in the moment, but an abdication of a moral sensibility. This loss is trauma born of evil. Incomprehensible.”


Rabbi Creditor tells the story of leaving the shiva house and being asked who he is, why he was there and what he thought of the Temple Mount. He is right. There are no words. He is right. At a shiva house you are not supposed to speak until spoken to. And when spoken to, the conversation is supposed to be about comforting the mourners, not about yourself or politics.


So he was correct in echoing his own words, “Ain Milim. There are no words.”

These rules of silence are ones we should all learn, whether we are paying a shiva call to a tent of mourning of unbearable grief as Menachem did or like the house I just visited where the discussion turned to health care in the United States.

This is not the time to discuss security gates on the Temple Mount or bulldozing houses on the West Bank.

Period. There will be a time for that. But not today. Today is for mourning. Period.

This would be enough on this Rosh Hodesh Av to feel the connection between the tragedies of 2000 years ago, the reasons we observe Tisha B’av and today. This is one more link in too, too long a chain. I can visualize years from now looking up Tisha B’av and finding the list of all the bad things that have happened in these Three Weeks. Destruction of the First and Second Temple. Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Fall of the Warsaw Ghetto. And the murder of the Solomon family in 2017.

But there is more. What happened to the Salomon family is an external threat. Internal threats can be greater.

They say that Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE because of baseless hatred. Jew against Jew.

Hatred is such a harsh word, a hard word Yet, hatred seems to continue. Jew against Jew.

Just last month, the Israeli Cabinet voted to shelve the “Kotel Agreement,” angering many in Israel and the Diaspora.

It delegitimizes many Jews both in the diaspora and in Israel itself. It questions our authenticity. My authenticity. It questions whether we are even really Jews at all. Entitled to the same rights and obligations to prayer as the ultra-Orthodox. And it is wrong.


Others have said this before and there are good sources on it. Better than I can write here. If you need all the halacha on why women are obligated to pray and not just exempt as some would have you believe, check out the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Abandoning the Kotel Agreement and only listing to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation Rabbis is wrong.


It is wrong when the Chief Rabbinate in Israel publishes accidentally on purpose a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose testimony the chief rabbinate is not accepting for questions of Jewish status in Israel. This list includes many prominent rabbis in the US including some right here in Chicagoland. It includes rabbis from every stream of Judaism. Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal. It includes good friends of mine and rabbis I have never met. It does not include any women. And it is wrong.


Here is the full list.

And here is what my colleague Rabbi Michael Siegel wrote about being on the black list.

These stories are not new. With every wedding couple, with every possible convert, with every person who wants to move to Israel, to make aliyah and claim their Israeli citizenship, I tell them that I would be honored to serve as their guide through those lifecycle events. I will study with them. Listen to their hopes and dreams. Help them craft meaningful, personalized ceremonies. However, they need to know that my ceremonies, my testimony may not be recognized in Israel. It may never be recognized in Israel. And that’s wrong.


So on this Rosh Hodesh Av, I am broken. Again. We as a Jewish people are broken. Again.

Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi in Israel taught that the antidote to Sinat Chinam, the baseless hatred that destroyed Jerusalem is Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.

“The story is told that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!” But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, “Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim – acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire hesed – loving-kindness – and not sacrifice!'” (Hosea 6:6). Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:21.”


The Torah is clear. We need to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Lev. 19) More than that we need to love the stranger. Today, and every day, we need to find ways to do precisely that. That is how I will observe Tisha B’av again this year. By mourning. By showing up. By being silent.

And when we rise from shiva, with deeds of love and kindness. Actions speak louder than words.

Finding Joy (and Comfort) in Strength: Chazak at the End of Bamidbar

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek,
Be strong, be strong and be strengthened.

Those are the words that we will say at the end of today’s Torah reading. Which, by the way is a double portion. There are lots of interesting things in it. The laws of vows and sanctuary cities. The inheritance of the daughters of Zelophophad.

But I wanted to focus on just those words. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek.

I asked why we say that when we finish reading a book of Torah. We didn’t have any real answers. It carries a sense of congratulations. YAY us, we finished another book. YAY us, let us be strengthened to read the next one. Let us carry on. It fits with Judaism’s sense that when we finish studying something we have a party, a siyum hasefer.

But these answers were not quite satisfying. Why not Mazel tov? Or Yasher Koach? Or Kol Hakavod? So I did more research.

We know that there are no extra words in the Torah so each word of this greeting must come to teach us something, even though it is not exactly in the Torah.

Could it mean, “Be strong, be strong, and we will be encouraged” or “Be strong, be strong, and we will make an effort.” Or even “Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.”

Hidden in here is a grammar lesson. I love a good grammatical puzzle. It helps our understanding.

The first part chazak, is singular. Each of us, as individuals, should be strong. It is an imperative. A commandment. Be strong. The second part is plural. First person, plural imperfect. Imperfect is a past tense verb form expressing an action in the past that is not yet complete. For example, “He was eating when you called”. For me it expresses a hope. Be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened. Remember that in Hebrew verb forms switch from past to future and visa versa with the addition of a vav.

This, then, is a very encouraging message, a very hopeful message. You be strong. You will be strong because we will be with you, strengthening you. We will be strong because you are part of our collective, part of our community.

What does it mean to be strong? It could be physical strength. But I think it is more than that. We tell people to be strong when they are battling cancer, or after a loved one dies, or in the face of other obstacles. “I have to be strong for the kids,” does not mean that you have to become a weight lifter.

In Hebrew, like English frankly, there is more than one word for strength. We began the early part of the service with the song from the Song of the Sea, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah. G-d is my strength and my song. G-d will be my redeemer, my salvation.” By affirming this verse, we say that it is with G-d that we have strength. “Adonai oz l’amo yitain, Adonai n’verach et amo v’shalom. The Lord will give strength to G-d’s people The Lord will bless G-d’s people with peace.”

So our strength comes from G-d. Only from G-d

And we are told not to trust in those who are the apparent powerful, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146) and again in Psalm 33, “No king is saves by the power of his arms, no warrior by reason of his strength. The war-horse will not help you, for all its strength it cannot save. Therefore we trust in the Lord. G-d is our Help and our Shield…Let Your steadfast love (chesed) rest upon us, as we put our trust in You.”

Yet we are told in the Talmud, in Nedarim 38a, a good tractate for today since Nedarim deals with vows as does our portion, that the spirit of G-d only rests on a person who is powerful, wealthy, wise and humble.

Really? Don’t some of those qualities contradict themselves and doesn’t the verse disagree with what we learn in Pirke Avot?

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it is written “I have gained understanding from all my teachers.” (Psalm 119:99). Who is strong? One who subdues the evil inclination, as it is written, “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” (Proverbs 16:32) Who is rich? One who rejoices in his portion, as it is written, (Psalm 128:2) “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” “You shall be” refers to this world; and “it shall be well with you” refers to the world to come. (Psalm 128:2) Who is honored? One that honors his fellow men as it is written “For those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.” (I Samuel 2:30). (Pirke Avot 4:1)

These, then are internal, spiritual attributes, not physical ones, as Rambam makes clear in later Jewish literature.

G-d is described as strong, powerful. We learn in the second paragraph of the Amidah, “Atah Gibor L’olam Adonai, You, O Lord, are mighty forever.” What is mighty about G-d? G-d sustains the living, supports the fallen, heals the sick, frees the captive and keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust.” The rabbis make it clear that these are mighty acts are acts of compassion.

We are told that we should be like G-d. Just as G-d clothed the naked, we should clothe the naked. Just as G-d visited the sick, we should visit the sick. Just as G-d fed the hungry, we should feed the hungry. Just as G-d buried the dead, we should bury the dead.” These acts of compassion show G-d’s power and might. That then is how we become strong.

God blesses people with strength. At a time of leadership transition, when Joshua was about to take the helm from Moses, at G-d’s command and instance, G-d reassures Joshua by saying, Chazak v’emetz, “Be strong and of good courage.” G-d is reassuring Joshua that G-d will go with him. That G-d will be by his side.

We used this blessing just last week as part of a blessing for a woman returning to her maiden name. At a time of transition.

We have that assurance, too. Isaiah teaches us, “G-d gives strength to the weary and power to the faint…those that wait for the Lord will renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40)

Isaiah is telling us to be not afraid. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who wrestled with depression, turned that into a theme. “All the world is a narrow bridge. The central thing is to not be afraid. Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar me’od. V’ha’ikar lo l’fachad klal.”

So there is my answer. Strength comes as a gift from G-d. The strength to resist the evil inclination. The strength to be satisfied, even to rejoice in our lot. Strength is rising above your fears. Strength is having courage. The courage to face the challenges that life throws at us. Whatever those may be. The strength to rise up every day and be grateful. The strength to reach out and be like G-d and perform acts of love and kindness, even when we don’t feel like it.

Chazak v’ametz.

Chazak, oz, gibor, koach. On this Shabbat, may we go from strength to strength. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.

Finding Joy in Names: Pinchas

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.


These words from the Israeli poet Zelda which I have used before at baby namings and funerals captures the theme for today.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But what is in a name?

Today’s Torah portion and haftarah portion turn out to be perfect for today. Because they are about names. Each person has a unique name. Sometimes more than one name. Think about it. You have your English name and your Hebrew name. A first name, a middle name and a last name. Sometimes you had a maiden name. Sometimes you choose, as I did, to keep your maiden name. Sometimes you add a title, doctor, rabbi, mom. Those may reflect a change of status. All of these names identify us. But they are more than that.

In today’s Torah portion there are a lot of names. Those names are important. Each one is recorded. Each person mattered. Even the leaders of the revolt. Even the daughters of Zelophephad who had no sons. Each of the descendants.

Names are important in Judaism. Powerful. They are the keys to our soul. Rabbi Benjaimin Blech from teaches, “They define us. They are to some extent prophetic. The names we are given at birth aren’t accidental. They capture our essence.”

Allow me a little fun Hebrew lesson. One of the Hebrew words for soul is neshamah. Right in the middle are the letters shin and mem, spelling the Hebrew word, Shem. “Name.” We know this word. “Shmi Margaret. Or Shmi Harav Miriam Simcha bat David v’Neily.” Or from the verse that follows the Sh’ma, “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed” or one of the many names for G-d, HaShem, literally The Name.

G-d was the first to give out names. In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth. And G-d called the light “Day” and the darkness, “Night” and G-d saw that it was good. G-d gave Adam his name.

We are told in the Midrash that since the time of Ezra and Nehemia that prophecy no longer exists. The Midrash continues, however, that we get a glimpse of Divine wisdom when we struggle to choose the right names for our children. That wrestling, evocative of Jacob wrestling with an angel when his name was changed, is a result of a partnership between us and G-d. How many of us wrestled, agonized over the decision of what to nam our children?

Allow me a little more word play, thanks to Rabbi Blech’s math. Hebrew letters each have a numerical equivalent. That’s why we say that 18=chai=life. That Hebrew word for name, Shem, has the same numerical value as the word for book, sefer. 340.

Because as he teaches, “ Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. That explains the fascinating midrash that tells us when we complete our years on this earth and face heavenly judgment, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked at the outset is, What is your name – and did you live up to it?”

That’s the story of Rabbi Zuziya. The question we will be asked is not why were you not Moses, but why weren’t Zuziya.

Rabbi Blech teaches us something else important. Sometimes a name can be retired. This happened after Hurricane Sandy. Usually storm names are recycled every six years. But not so with Sandy. Too much destruction. Too many deaths, 72 of them. There will never be another Hurricane Sandy.

Too superstitious? Maybe, but Jews have been changing names since the very beginning of Judaism. Abraham’s name was changed from Avram to Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Jews have been known to change a Hebrew name when someone is critically ill, to trick the Angel of Death. Jews escaping pogroms or conscription in the Russian army changed their names. Jews arriving at Ellis Island had their names changed for them when those long Russian or Polish names were too hard to pronounce, let alone spell.

But there is one more thing we learn from today’s Torah portion and most especially our haftarah.

G-d calls Jeremiah. “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you. Before you were born, I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

And it is not just Jeremiah. It is Moses. And Isaiah. And Jonah. G-d names. G-d calls. G-d chooses. This is a comforting thought. Even before we are born, we are called by G-d. We are loved by G-d. G-d calls us “Beloved.”

In Psalm 139, we hear echoes of this, “O, Lord, You have examined me and know me. When I sit down or sand up, You know it. You discern my thoughts from afar. You observe my walking and reclining and are familiar with all my ways…It was You who created me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made.”

The challenge becomes like for Abraham, like Moses, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, to answer, Hineni, here am I. To find our unique name. Our unique calling. Our unique place in the world. But we do not do that alone. We do that in partnership with G-d.

Frederick Buechner said that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That is our sacred task. Each of us.

Yet, we don’t need to be afraid. Isaiah teaches us:

“And now, says the Lord that created you, O Jacob, that formed you O Israel. Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name and you are Mine. When you pass through waters I will be with you and through rivers, they shall not overflow. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned. Fear not, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 43)


The Reform siddur, prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah takes this call from Isaiah and turns it into a responsive reading that collectively accepts the call.

I, the Eternal, have called you to righteousness, and taken you by the hand and kept you. I have made you a covenant people. A light to the nations.

We are Israel: witness to the covenant between God and God’s children.

This is the covenant that I make with Israel. I will place My Torah in your midst and write it upon your hearts. I will be your G-d and you will be My people.

We are Israel: our Torah forbids the worship of race or nations, possessions or power.

You who worship gods that cannot save you, hear the words of the Eternal One: I am God, there is none else!

We are Israel: our prophets proclaimed an exalted vision for the world.

Hate evil, and love what is good: let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

We are Israel: schooled in the suffering of the oppressed.

You shall not oppress your neighbors nor rob them.
You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.

We are Israel: taught to beat swords into plowshares, commanded to pursue peace.

Violence shall no longer be heard in your land, desolation and destruction within your borders. All your children will be taught of your God and great shall be the peace of your children.

We are Israel, O God, when we are witnesses to Your love and messengers of Your truth.

Pirke Avot says that R. Simeon said: There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name excels them.
(Ethics of the Fathers 4:17)

Yes, Zelda had it right. Each of us has a name.

That was the end of the “formal” sermon. But there was another part of the morning that is important and shows why the Torah portion was just so perfect. Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of welcoming to the bimah a woman who is almost through a divorce. She was choosing to celebrate her birthday and a return to her birth name in a very public way. She was sponsoring the Kiddush but there seemed a need to do something more. There is nothing in the rabbi’s manuals—of any denomination. (I figured that.) I went online to see what others have done. There are prayers for people going through a divorce, to express the feelings of profound grief and anger that sometimes happen. There were rituals of separation that were not just the presentation of a “get” the Jewish bill of divorce. I reached out to a couple of “creative liturgists”. There is nothing available. So I created a blessing, to be used before the misheberach for healing of mind, body or spirit.

What follows is the prayer, the blessing for her and her new/old name:

Blessing on Returning To Your Birth Name

Today is your birthday.
A day filled with promise and hope.
A day where the world is a better place because you are in it.
A day where you are returning, reborn
A day where you are reclaiming your identity.
A day for healing and hope.

May the name that you are choosing
Again for yourself
Be filled with promise and optimism
Hope and renewal
Wisdom and strength
Happiness and joy

And may your name be called again
Maureen Manning

Yivarechecha Adonai vyishmerecha
May G-d bless you and keep you .
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha v’chunecha
May G-d’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you.
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v’yasam lecha shalom
May G-d face shine upon you and grant you peace, now and forever.

Finding Joy in Love: Balak and a 50th Anniversary

Love is in the air…love, exciting and new. Come aboard. We’re expecting you. That’s the old theme song from an old sitcom, the Love Boat. Love is in the air this morning.

Ma Tovu

How LOVEly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

These are the words with which we start our morning service. How lovely. How beautiful. How good.

These are the words of a non-Jewish prophet hired to curse the Jews. You might say he is the original paid expert consultant, the original talking head—on CNN or Fox or on the witness stand.

But here’s the difference. Three times he tries and three times he can’t do it. There is even a talking donkey to foil his attempts. Finally G-d puts these words in his mouth.

How lovely are your tents, your dwelling places. Sing it with me.

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.

What makes a dwelling place good? What is a good home?

People answered: Love. Acceptance. Happiness. Safety and security. Humor. Peace. Trust.

The rabbis teach something, too. A home should be a mikdash me’at, a small temple, a little sanctuary. In Megilah 29a we are taught that G-d will dwell in the holy spaces we create, for they are like the Holy Temple, like the Mikdash, the Mishkan. Where G-d dwelled within.

That is the basis of the Friday night blessings welcoming Shabbat. It is a re-enactment, a recreation on a small scale of the offerings in the Holy Temple. Lighting lights, blessing wine, offering challah.

But creating a mikdash me’at is more than that. It is about creating sacred space. A place where people feel valued and loved. A home filled with shalom bayit, peace of the house. It is not really about how many bedrooms you have or how many people can fit around the dining room table. There is an old Irish blessing, “May your house be too small to hold all your friends.”

Because we learn something else about our tents. Sarah, our matriarch, opened her tent on all four sides. That way she could see anyone coming from any direction and offer hospitality.

Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi in Israel asked why the repetition. Why do we need both tents and dwelling places. He answers his own question: “The tent and the mishkan are both forms of temporary shelter. Both relate to the soul’s upwards journey. However, they differ in a significant aspect. The tent is inherently connected to the state of traveling. It corresponds to the aspiration for constant change and growth. The mishkan is also part of the journey, but it is associated with the rests between travels. It is the soul’s sense of calm, its rest from the constant movement, for the sake of the overall mission.”

He argues that the dwelling place is the loftier ideal. “The desire to change reflects a lower-level fear, lest we stagnate and deteriorate. Therefore, the blessing mentions tents first, together with the name Jacob, the first and embryonic name of the Jewish people. The need to stop and rest, on the other hand, stems from a higher-level fear, lest we over-shoot the appropriate level for the soul. For this reason, the blessing mentions “mishkan” together with the name Israel, Jacob’s second and holier name.”

The rabbis one more thing about this verse. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they set up their tents so that no one could see in their neighbors’ tent. What Balaam is really praising then is modesty. This seems on the surface to be the opposite of Abraham and Sarah’s approach. But it is important, too and we can have both—open so that we can offer hospitality to whomever needs and it and modesty.

What is this quality of modesty that Balaam is praising? We are told in today’s haftarah that there are only three things that G-d requires of us, “To justly, to love mercy and to walk modestly with G-d.” Often that modesty is translated as humbly. It was my mother’s very favorite verse of Scripture, because it is so simple. Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d. That’s all you need to do. But what does modesty mean? I don’t think it is about how you are dressed—we’ve all seen the signs in Jerusalem about “Daughters of Zion, dress modestly.” There has been lots written about this topic, particularly in the Orthodox world. One walk through the Jewel in Evanston and you know just what I mean.

But tzinut is about more than that. Tzniut, modesty includes being discreet, quiet speech, and private affections. It is related to humility. It is about not taking up more than your space, about knowing your place. The words that hang above our ark, “Da lifnei mi atah omaid, Know before Whom you stand,” are words that keep me modest and humble.

Today we are here to celebrate Shabbat and our dwelling places, our sanctuaries. We are also here to celebrate love. Today we are here to celebrate with Gareth and Paul their 50th anniversary. When they first approached me wanting to celebrate together, I was delighted. I didn’t realize how appropriate the Torah portion would be. How LOVEly are our tents and our dwelling places. BOTH. Words said by the non-Jewish prophet.

Or how timely it would be. In the last month there has been a lot of discussion nationally about interfaith marriage with the announcement of a major Conservative synagogue, Bnai Jeshurn in New York now deciding that their clergy will officiate at interfaith marriages.

Now when Gareth and Paul got married, 50 years ago, not every one was happy about it. In fact some people said some very mean, ugly things. People didn’t think it was possible that the marriage would survive. They can tell you the stories at the Kiddush today which they are sponsoring. I am delighted that today they are comfortable enough to celebrate their lasting love here at Congregation Kneseth Israel.

This is a couple that has demonstrated and lived out Balaam’s words. Their house is frequently open to guests—whether it is a CKI Book Group or a meeting of poets and artists, or a casual summer supper in their lovely garden. And I mean all. It is quite a diverse group of people who may gather at their home at any given time. Their home has even been a sanctuary for friends needing to get back on their feet. They just do it because it needs to be done. No fan fare. Just an open door policy. No questions asked. That’s the modesty piece. They understand the value of housing for all as they work tirelessly with PADs.

They have made their home a mikdash me’at.

They have forged a way to be loving and supportive of each other in their own faith communities. Paul sings in our choir. Gareth used to run Bethlehem Lutheran’s strawberry festival. In so doing they have created a shalom bayit, a house of peace.

50 years ago. They were trailblazers. I am glad that 50 years later they have found acceptance in each of their faith communities.

Recently I helped a family with a funeral. Some of you were here. David Goodman was a member here. Thanks to Dan Marshall, he was a frequent attender at Saturday morning services when his health permitted. His wife, Rosalie, is not Jewish. They wanted to make sure that he had a Jewish burial. Every little detail, was performed with such loving care by his wife was done according to Jewish law. They were the trailblazers.

Currently I am reading a challenging and important book. Being Both by Susan Katz Miller. She traces the growth of some interfaith communities, primarily ones in Washington, DC, New York and Chicago where parents with the support of some Christian clergy and Jewish clergy have been educating their children in both faith traditions. While there has been a growth in these kinds of communities, the challenges are not new. They reflect the growing interfaith marriage rate. 71% of all new Jewish marriages in the non-Orthodox world and 58% of all marriages, according to a recent 2013 Pew Study, involve one non-Jewish partner. Some convert. Some do not. This growing trend has been happening for a long time, reflecting growing assimilation and acceptance in the wider American community. There are many, many families like the Sitzes and the Goodmans. When the Sitzes and Goodmans were newlyweds there were not the resources or acceptance available to them that we have today.

I am proud of some of the ways CKI has welcomed interfaith families. We have changed our by laws so that both partners of an interfaith family can vote. The non-Jewish partner can even serve on the board, just not as Executive Vice President or President. We have an interfaith section of our cemetery. We are welcoming to interfaith families in our Hebrew School. We have partnered extensively with and have loved having Rabbi Ari Moffic the Chicago director come to CKI and meet with families and train teachers. I am proud that we were chosen to be part of the first cohort of congregations and Jewish institutions wrestling and establishing what the best practices might be. As we get further in that process, we will welcome your input. That team includes me, Heather, Risa and Sue.

In starting the initial assessment I can tell you we are ahead of some of the cohort and we haven’t gone far enough. Some of my concern is about our own speech. How do we talk about our interfaith families? Are we disparaging? Ashamed? Confused? Push them to make choices of observance that are not right for them? Do we communicate clearly to all the members of the community what are policies are? Are we really welcoming? Are we creating a mikdash me’at, a small, holy sanctuary, for everyone? As we get further into this process, we will welcome input from all of you.

The rest of the prayer of that begins with the words of Balaam which we say every day when we enter the sanctuary is:

How LOVEly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.

As for me, through Your abundant lovingkindness, I enter Your house to worship with awe in Your sacred place.
O Lord, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory lives.
I shall prostrate myself low and bow; I shall kneel before the Lord, my Maker.
To You, Eternal One, goes my prayer: may this be a time of your favor. In Your abundant love, O God, answer me with the Truth of Your salvation.

How LOVEly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. May we each create a home that is a mikdash me’at, filled with lovingkindness, peace, hospitality and modesty. May we find the time to help create that sense of safety and security for others so that all of us can inexperience the indwelling of the Divine Presence. Ken yehi ratzon.

Blessing for the Sitz Family on the Occasion of their 50th Anniversary:

We begin with the priestly benediction, a blessing since it comes from the Book of Numbers that Jews and Christians hold in common. There are beautiful musical settings of this, both in Hebrew and English. Paul, no doubt, you have even sung one or two of them in your choir.

Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishm’recha.
Ya’er Adonai panav aylecha veechooneka.
Yeesah Adonai panav aylecha v’yasaym licha shalom.

May God bless you and safeguard you. May God illuminate His countenance to you and be gracious to you. May God turn His countenance to you and grant you peace, now and forever.

May G-d continue to bless you with love and joy, peace and contentment, with periods of growth and periods of rest. With a house filled with love, with family and friends, with laughter and wine and song, with the play of grandchildren, with books and art and meaningful discussion. May G-d continue to bless you with love.

Independence Day 2017

Today is American Independence Day. The 4th of July. In 1776, a ragtag band of leaders declared their independence from a repressive regime in England. They were protesting taxation without representation. They wanted a say in their own governance.

The 13 states said,

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Later many of this same group of leaders passed the Constitution and later still the Bill of Rights. These are the foundational documents of our great democracy. The documents stand on their own merits. Yet they are the source of much debate, much like Talmud. What did the founding fathers mean? Are you a strict constitutionalist or is there room for interpretation? And those debates are necessary to the survival of this great experiment called America.

Last summer, Simon and I went hiking in South Dakota, first at Mount Rushmore, a National Monument and then at Custer State Park. It was beautiful. Everyone should take the opportunity to experience driving through the Needles, staring up at the Presidents, wondering about whose else’s head might have been included, marveling at the skill involved and visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial. You should experience sunny days, booming thunderstorms, a little hail and the wide expanse of starry nights. You should be wowed. You should feel awe.

I left South Dakota deeply troubled. I thrilled at the first sight of Mount Rushmore. It is amazing. And beautiful. It had long been a goal, ever since a team member from Poland had said in San Francisco that with our free afternoon, his birthday, he wanted to visit the Presidents. I finally figured it out. He meant Mount Rushmore. He had no idea how far South Dakota was from San Francisco, that great expanse that we call America. “This land is my land. This land is your land. From California to the New York Islands.” No idea. We went to see the giant sequoias, the redwood forest, instead. But I learned just how iconic and how worldwide that image of the mountain is.

And maybe iconic is the right word. What happens if the system is broken? What happens if the democracy fails? When we hiked the Presidential Trail and visited the sculptor’s studio, we learned that hidden behind Lincoln’s head is a room. Called the Hall of Records, it was not finished before the sculptor’s death. However, in the 1990s the project was revived and it now contains a teak box in a titanium vault with porcelain panels containing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The idea was that in a thousand years, another civilization might find the box and be able to restart our democracy. I found the concept chilling.

Simon and I have spent lots of time hiking on the Fourth of July, enjoying our National Parks. On Independence Day, itself, we have enjoyed many hours in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s what we do. On Simon’s 65th birthday we drove to Acadia to make sure he received his Golden Eagle Passport. For $10.00, he receives entrance to all the National Parks. Now called the Senior Pass, it is the best buy in America!

Because we love history, we have been to the Freedom Trail, Minuteman National Park, Adams National Historical Park, Independence National Park, Lowell National Historical Park, Salem National Historical Park, the USS Constitution Museum, and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. And even before we lived in Illinois, Lincoln Home National Historic Site. And those are the ones I remember. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayna famously said.

After we finished hiking at Mount Rushmore where there is really not a lot of hiking at the site itself, we went to Custer State Park. Again I became concerned. Custer State Park remains a state park and not part of the national monument because residents wanted a preserve a place to hunt. There was something that struck me about the rights of the individual versus the wider community. About privilege. About ruling the land rather than being one with the land.

Finally we visited at the Crazy Horse Memorial. It made me question how we treat this land. This land that I love to hike. Who has a right to the land? How have we treated the Native American? How am I responsible? I wanted to come home and read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

This country that I love to learn the history, and interpret that history, as an American Studies major, as a colonial re-enactor, as a rabbi.

This country is a great country. One I pray for every day, using the ancient words of my Jewish ancestors. This country is a great country, founded on principles that mesh with my Jewish values and my heritage of being a third generation Girl Scout. This country is a great country that welcomed my ancestors even before Lady Liberty with her poem written by Emma Lazurus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This is a great country that includes the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is a great country that guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech,  freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. We need to safeguard these freedoms.

On this Fourth of July while we are enjoying parades and picnics, family, friends and fireworks, we need to take time to remember our history and enjoy the beauty of this land and all of its people. Then tomorrow, we need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work to preserve this great nation so we don’t need to access the room hidden behind Lincoln’s head, high above the Black Hills of South Dakota.



Finding Joy in the Ins and the Outs: Hukkat

Has anyone watched the mini-series “Dig”?

It is a fast paced series that aired in 2015. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it centers around someone searching for the ancient Ark of the Covenant. Searching for the Ark is like playing with fire, so of course there is a murder, espionage and in Norway, the birth a red heifer. It is worth the watch if you can find it. And a chance to practice your modern Hebrew!

A red heifer? What’s with the red heifer. Every few years, someone thinks they have found a red heifer. The latest was in February of this year in West Virginia. The retired civil engineer discovered it amongst 3 heifers that his sons purchased.

“I would be thrilled if this could be used. I hope and pray the Temple will be rebuilt,” Shuff said. “It’s a very Christian thing, a House of Prayer for all Nations.”

Here’s Breaking News of Israel’s explanation:

The red heifer was used in Temple times to purify Jews from impurity caused by contact with or coming in the vicinity of a dead body. The ritual involved in creating the ashes from the red heifer is considered the most esoteric and inexplicable of all the Torah commandments. Because the elements needed for this ceremony have been lacking since the destruction of the Second Temple, all Jews today are considered ritually impure for this reason, thereby preventing the return of the Temple service. Red Heifer’s that fulfill all of the requirements are exceedingly rare and during the 1,000 years the two Temples stood in Jerusalem, only nine red heifers were used. According to Jewish tradition, the tenth red heifer will be used to usher in the Messiah.

It seems appropriate then to discuss this archaic ritual of purification as we begin the month of Tammuz. On the 17th of Tammuz we mark the day the walls of Jerusalem that were breached before the destruction of the Temple. On Tisha B’Av we mark the destruction of both Holy Temples.

Many Orthodox and evangelical Christians believe that before the Holy Temple can be rebuilt there needs to be a red heifer to purify us from contact with a dead body. What’s really going on here?

You can read it a number of ways. This commandment is described as hukkat hatorah, a Torah law, a category of mitzvah that there isn’t an explanation for. G-d said to do it; so you just do it. No questions asked. You can read it as anthropology. Death is scary. Coming into contact with death is scary, so you need to have a ritual afterwards. Mary Douglas wrote extensively about this in her book, Purity and Danger.

This is a ritual that separates tameh from tahor, from impure to pure, from dirty to clean. Somehow it cleanses. At Mayyim Hayyim, the Community Mikveh and Education Center in Boston, they prefer the language of ritually unready and ritually ready. Because this is a preparation that is not about dirty and clean.

Part of this ritual happens outside the camp. This is really about inside and outside. About authenticity. About who has a right of access. It is about who can draw close to G-d. It is about trying to return to Gan Eden, paradise. It is a necessary reset button. People shouldn’t be outside the camp forever. The priest is only outside the camp until evening. Then the priest is welcomed back into the camp.

We’ve had several of them. When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden they lost their proximity to G-d. They were outside the camp. When the generation of Noah was wicked, and G-d caused the flood, the rainbow was sent as a sign that G-d would never destroy the world again. When the Tower of Babel was built and languages were confused, it was harder to talk to each other and to G-d. When the Israelites committed the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses interceded and reminded G-d that these were G-d’s people. When Miriam complained about Moses she was struck with some skin disease and she was put outside the camp. Even in last week’s portion there was a way to draw close to G-d after the rebellion of Korach.

This ritual gives us the opportunity to look closely at who is in and who is out. It is not unlike looking in the cafeteria during a middle school lunch. Who gets to sit with whom.

Unfortunately, then, this portion is too relevant to the events of the week. On Sunday morning I awoke to the news that some Jews were prohibited from marching in the Dyke March the day before. Their sin? Carrying a pride flag with a Star of David. Somehow, some of the organizers felt that would be triggering for other marchers. They were removed. They were outside the camp.

Then we received the news that the cabinet in Israel had voted to not honor the agreement struck last year to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. It would also cede to the wishes of the ultra-Orthodox in not recognizing conversions by Reform and Conservative and even some Orthodox rabbis. Only those performed by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel would be recognized. This is a question of authenticity. About who has the right of access. About who has the right to prayer. About who has the right to draw close to G-d. It is about inside the camp and outside the camp.

This is not a new threat in Israel. Women of the Wall, whose tallit I proudly wear, has been working on this issue since 1988, almost 30 years! The Chief Rabbinate have been arguing over who is a Jew and then who has a right to Israeli citizenship and Jewish life cycle events almost since the inception of the State of Israel.

Now the good news, there has been such an outcry from the American Jewish community, from Rabbi Lord Sacks and from 35 modern Orthodox rabbis, that Israel has put the conversion question on hold once again. For six months this time. I assume we will see it again and we will need to be prepared to speak out again.

And it is not just in Israel where the authenticity of fellow Jews is questions. No, right here at CKI. I have heard comments denigrating Reform Judaism. They’re not really Jews, right? Or questioning some ritual observance, “But rabbi, that’s not Jewish.” And even if I show someone chapter and verse, they are not convinced. “You just made that up.” No, really I did not. What they are really saying, usually, is “That’s not the way I grew up. That’s not the way I always did it.” Or even about someone more observant then they, “Well this congregation wasn’t a good fit. We can’t please everybody.” Or about the younger generation, “They just don’t care. We brought our kids to services on Saturday morning. They should too.” All of these comments question people’s authenticity. Question people’s right to draw close to G-d. They create an in group and an out group. Inside the camp and outside the camp.

This portion is critical to what is happening in today’s world. Not that I am arguing that we need to go find a red heifer. I am not sure any of them will ever exist again.

No, what I am saying is that we need to find a way to make sure that every one can sit at the lunch table. That everyone can pray at the Western Wall. That no one is left outside the camp permanently. That everyone can draw close to G-d. That everyone can do teshuvah, return. In order to do so, first we have to repair our relationships first with the people we have harmed by putting them outside the camp, by bringing them back inside the camp. Only then can we repair our relationship with G-d, by cleansing and purifying, making ourselves ritually ready once more. But our tradition is clear. First you must repair your relationships. First you must offer deeds of lovingkindness, not sacrifice.