The Journey of Hope: Shimini 5778

Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Emily Dickinson

So what is hope? And why talk about it today?

Today we at a moment in between, between Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. So today, we must find hope. This is what Elie Wiesel said in an interview with Reform Judaism:

“We must ask ourselves the painful questions: ‘Have we survivors done our duty?’ ‘Has our warning been properly articulated?’ ‘Has our message been accurately communicated?’ ‘Have we acted as true witnesses?’ It is with fear and trembling that we often reach the conclusion: something went wrong with our testimony; it was not received. Otherwise, things would have been different…. Had anyone told us when we were liberated that we would be compelled in our lifetime to fight anti-Semitism once more… we would have had no strength to lift our eyes from the ruins. If only we could tell the tale, we thought, the world would change. Well, we have told the tale, and the world has remained the same….
And yet, we shall not give up, we shall not give in. It may be too late for the victims and even for the survivors – but not for our children, not for mankind. Yes, in an age tainted by violence, we must teach coming generations of the origins and consequences of violence. In a society of bigotry and indifference, we must tell our contemporaries that whatever the answer, it must grow out of human compassion and reflect man’s relentless quest for justice and memory.”

That’s forward thinking. That’s hope.

Elie Wiesel worked for a time where there would never be a holocaust again—to anyone, at anytime, any place. He, together with the US Holocaust Museum and American Jewish World Service was one of the leaders of the Save Darfur campaign and a massive rally in Washington DC, in 2006.

That’s forward thinking. That’s hope.

American Jewish World Service is at the vanguard of pushing for protections for the Rohinga. As one of their recent travel study tours participants, Carol Weitz “We, as Jews, have a sacred responsibility to the larger world and if we truly strive for a better world, then we cannot turn our backs on others who are denied their human rights.”

That’s forward thinking. That’s hope.

Judaism is a religion of hope. We sing—and we will sing HaTikvah, the hope, later this morning. We pray for a time when the world will be at peace—and yet for more than 2000 years the world has not been at peace. We continue to teach the vision of the prophets where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.

It is forward thinking. It is hope.

Last night, at this liminal time, I told two stories. I told The Terrible Things, an allegory of the Holocaust, by Eve Bunting. In a forest setting, she retells the quote of Martin Niemoller. First they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up. This week we learned that Americans don’t know about the Holocaust,

41% of Americans don’t know about Auschwitz. Two-thirds of millennials. Now I did surveying for a living before I was a rabbi, but these numbers were so compelling I felt I had to act. So I told the story and asked. And every single one of the kids who had come as part of their confirmation program at First Congregational Church knew the Niemoller quote. That provides me with hope.

Then I turned to Israel and I read most of the story, The Secret Grove, by Barbara Cohen. It tells the story of a 10 year old boy in Kfar Saba. His father lost an arm in the War of Independence but he is normal boy, going to school and playing soccer, hoping that he won’t be chosen last for the team. He is and he runs away with his ball, down a dirt road and runs into another boy…He’s scared but in a combination of Hebrew, English and little Arabic the two have a conversation. They become friends. They plant some orange seeds. The book doesn’t sugar coat it. At the end the boy, now a grown up, returns to the dirt road and the tree that grew from the seeds. He has now fought Arabs in three wars. He wonders what the boy has done.

Somehow this book gives me hope.

The Hope, HaTikvah is the name of the Israeli National Anthem. What do we know about it?
It was originally written in 1878 by Naphtali Herz Imber from Zolochiv, a city that was nicknamed “The City of Poets. When he immigrated to Palestine in 1882 he read his nine stanza poem to some of the early pioneers. It originally expressed his pride following the establishment of Pitah Tikvah and published in Barkai. It then became the anthem of first Hovevei Zion and then the Zionist movement at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. It wasn’t without controversy. The British Mandate government banned it briefly in 1919 due to Arab anti-zionist protest. And some Orthodox rabbis protested its selection as Israel’s national anthem because it doesn’t mention G-d. Instead, Rav Kook penned a different set of lyrics, Ha-Emunah, the Faith.

Both are forward thinking. They give me hope.

Jews, despite all the odds, have always found a way to hope. In exile. Words like, “If I forget, thee, O Jerusalem.” And “By the waters of Babylon,” gave our people hope. Proclaiming every year, “Next year in Jerusalem,” at the Passover seder, gave our people hope. Welcoming Elijah, the herald of the Messianic era to a seder, Havdalah the birth of a child, gives us hope. Working for Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, bringing the shards of our world’s brokenness back together, is forward thinking and gives us hope.

In 1925 Edmund Flegg, a French Jew penned an article that appears in our prayerbook.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no
abdication of my mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every
possible sacrifice of my soul.

I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears
and suffering the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair
is heard the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most
ancient and the most modern.

I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal

I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished;
men will complete it.

I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet fully
created; men are creating him.

I am a Jew because Israel places man and his unity
above nations and above Israel itself.

I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine
unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

— Edmond Flegg, “Why I Am a Jew”

It is a reading with forward thinking. It fills me with hope.

Even during the Holocaust, Jews found a way to hope. Even at the gates of Auschwitz, they would sing.

Ani Maamin, ani maamin, ani maamin.
Beviat hamashiach, ani manamin.

I believe with complete faith
In the coming of the Messiah. I believe.

And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.

While based on Rambam’s 13 Articles of Faith, I am not sure I could have sung that standing there.

Perhaps, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Great Britain says it best.

“Judaism is a religion of details, but we miss the point if we do not sometimes step back and see the larger picture. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.”

Jonathan Sacks

To underscore what Sacks himself has said, “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of an inextinguishable hope.”

It is a powerful statement. It also carries with it great responsibility. Hope is not the same as optimism, which is “passive and accepting.” Hope requires us to work together to make things better.”

Elie Wiesel ended his interview with the magazine with these words:

So despite your disappointment and bouts of pessimism, you remain hopeful.

Yes. One must wager on the future. I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face. Above all, we must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.

Just as despair can be given to me only by another human being, hope too can be given to me only by another human being. Mankind must remember too that, like hope, peace is not God’s gift to his creatures. Peace is a very special gift–it is our gift to each other. For the sake of our children and theirs, I pray that we are worthy of that hope, of that redemption, and some measure of peace.

Come work with me for a better world, a vision of what the world can be. Come find hope.

The Journey of Love: Shabbat Pesach 2 5778

“Do you love me?
Do I love you. With our daughters getting married and there’s trouble in the town, your upset, your worn out, go inside, go lie down.
Maybe it’s indigestion.
Goldie…I’m asking you a question. Do you love me?
You’re a fool.
I know.
For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cows, after twenty five years why talk about love right now.”

Milked the cows is where I drew the line. You know, he had a dairy farm in the UP.
But…love…we don’t talk about it enough. We assume, like Goldie, it’s there. That it will always be there. That’s a mistake.

Love needs to be nurtured. Love comes in different forms. There is the old love, like Tevye and Goldie. Like Isaac and Rebecca which is the first mention of love, ahava in the Bible. It’s comforting. It is comfortable. But maybe it is just too easy to take for granted.

Then there is the love between G-d and the people of Israel. Between G-d and each of us individually. We know G-d loves us because it says so in the second blessing of our service. G-d show love, like a loving parent, by giving us Torah, a set of rules that provides structure and boundaries.

On Shabbat Pesach, if it were an intermediate day and not the last day like today, then we would have read about G-d hiding Moses in the cleft of the rock and all of G-d’s goodness passing before Moses. Moses, hidden, would have heard that essential truth—Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet. Noseh chesed v’alaphim, noseh avon, v’pesha, v’chatata v’nakeh. The Lord, The Lord G-d is merciful and gracious, patient, and full of lovingkindness and truth. Extending lovingkindness to the thousandth generation…forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.

That is an Eternal truth. An Eternal love.

But today we talk about another kind of love. Today we read –and hopefully sing—the text the Song of Songs. It’s a pretty racy text. And it was my Bat Mitzvah haftarah. I told my rabbi then, that I wasn’t going to read it in English—as was the custom there—I would read it in Hebrew. Not going to read that text in front of my 13 year old classmates. Especially not those boys. Yuck!

The rabbis included it in the cannon even though it is one of two books in the Bible that never mention G-d. The other book is Esther, where G-d is hidden. (Esther is a word that means hidden as well.)

They saw the text as an allegory of the love of G-d for G-d’s people Israel

That’s nice. And thank G-d Rabbi Akiva felt that way and became the champion for its inclusion. “while all of the sacred writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies!” (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5).

The allegorical nature went on to fuel later commentaries, like the Zohar, the Jewish mystical text and Maimonides who said:

“What is the proper form of the love of God? It is that he should love Adonai with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly… And it is to this that Solomon refers allegorically when he says: ‘For I am love-sick’ (Song of Songs 2:5) for the whole of Song is a parable on this theme.” (Hilchot Teshuvah, 10:3) “

OK, still nice. But not enough.

Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the first rabbi of this congregation, and Simon’s father’s rabbi at Congregation Sinai,

Wrote the original Jewish Encyclopedia article on the Song of Songs. Where he explores the Mishnah and Rambam and points out that the allegorical interpretation passed over to the Christian Church as well. Which is the way it has been until almost the last 100 years.

He also looked at the dating of the text. Was it really Solomon who wrote it? That’s nice but probably not true. Was it later? Probably. We’re Jews after all, so we debate everything, even in scholarly circles. So date estimates range from the 10th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. A careful look at language and syntax as well as surrounding literature puts it most likely at 3rd century

Again that’s nice. Does that really add anything to our understanding?

Was it a metaphor of a rustic wedding? A week-long festivity celebrating the bride and groom with a complicated, carefully orchestrated sword dance? Or a love poem between Tammuz and Ishtar? Hirsch thinks maybe.

What if we read it as a dialogue—between young lovers. Then how does it read?

When I first read this in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book, Godwrestling, I was blown away. But it works. Many of us recited these words as part of our weddings. It hangs in my bedroom and it encircles my wrist.

Let’s try it. Women you read the first line and then men you read the response.

Remember —don’t stir up love until it please.

In a more modern piece, Waskow asks an unasked, fifth question of Passover…”Why is there charoset on the seder plate? No haggadah actually gives us this answer. We pass it down from generation to generation by word of mouth. You know the story. The charoset is supposed to represent the mortar that the Israelite slaves used to build the pyramids.

But Rabbi Waskow argues that it makes no sense. It is sweet. “If it mimics the mortar of slavery, it must also remind us that slavery may taste sweet, and this is itself a deeper kind of slavery.”

I had to think about that for a while. How can slavery be sweet? But remember how the Israelites kvetched in the desert? They wanted to go back to Egypt—for the cucumbers and the onions as the text will tell us—but really for the certitude. They knew what to expect.

Sometimes, we have a similar issue in this country with prisioners who do their time, get released and then commit a new crime because somehow being in jail is easier. Safer. They want to go back. Three square meals a day, heat, a roof over their heads. Predictability. Safety. Security.

The night before Passover began I attended an important program at Gail Borden Library sponsored by Gail Borden and the Elgin Police Department. Called the If Project, the founder, a tough cop from Seattle, Kim Bogucki, asks the question—maybe this is the real Fifth Question of Passover,

“If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?”

As their website states: “We are a collaboration of law enforcement, currently and previously incarcerated adults and community partners focused on intervention, prevention and reduction in incarceration and recidivism. Our work is built upon–and inspired by–people sharing their personal experiences surrounding the issues of incarceration.”

Watching this documentary and learning from this cop, representing the clergy of Elgin was important. It was a perfect way to spend the night before Passover, thinking about incarceration and freedom.

If there was something or someone that could have said or done something that changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?

After lots of mentoring and classes and writing, it almost always comes down to feeling loved. For me, this was a really important, significant, powerful program.

If each of us is to see ourselves as having been led out of Egypt, freed from the narrow spaces of Mitzrayim with a strong arm and an outstretched arm, with discipline and love, each of us needs to confront the If Project’s question.

But back to the Song of Songs. Back to the charoset:

Waskow explains that there is a deeper truth to the charoset, transmitted not by word of mouth by taste of mouth, kisses of the mouth, the very text we read this morning, Song of Songs and he contends that the recipe is in the Song itself. The first time I read this, years ago, it was mind-blowing.

So charoset is not the mortar. It is the sweet taste of G-d’s love for each of us. It is the sweet taste of freedom. It is the sweet taste shared between lovers.

It is the hidden recipe for love. Enjoy! Happy Passover.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Charoset Recipe, based on the Song of Songs:

“Verses from the Song:

  • “Feed me with apples and with raisin-cakes;
  • “Your kisses are sweeter than wine;
  • “The scent of your breath is like apricots;
  • “Your cheeks are a bed of spices;
  • “The fig tree has ripened;
  • “Then I went down to the walnut grove.”

So the “recipe” points us toward apples, quinces, raisins, apricots, figs, nuts, wine. Within the framework of the free fruitfulness of the earth, the “recipe” is free-form: no measures, no teaspoons, no amounts. Not even a requirement for apples rather than apricots, cinnamon rather than cloves, figs rather than dates. So there is an enormous breadth for the tastes that appeal to Jews from Spain, Poland, Iraq, India, America.
Nevertheless, I will offer a recipe.

Take a pound of raw shelled almonds, two pounds of organic raisins, and a bottle of red wine. On the side have organic apricots, chopped apples, figs, and dates (no pits), and small bottles of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Assemble either an electric blender, or your great-grandmom’s cast-iron hand-wound gefulte-fish chopper brought from the Old Country. If it’s the blender, put it on “chop” rather than “paste” frequency.

Start feeding the almonds and raisins into the blender or mixer, in judicious mixture. (How do you know “judicious”? Whatever doesn’t get the whole thing stuck so it won’t keep grinding.) Whenever you feel like it, pour in some wine to lubricate the action. Stop the action every once in a while to poke around and stir up the ingredients.

Freely choose when to add apricots, apples, figs, and/or dates. Taste every ten minutes or so. If you start feeling giddy, good! — that’s the wine.

Add in the spices. Clove is powerful, sweet and subtly sharp at the same time; a lot will get you just on the edge of dope.

Keep stirring, keep chopping, keep dribbling wine — not till the charoset turns to paste but till there are still nubs of nuts, grains of raisin, suddenly a dollop of apricot spurting on your tongue.

You say this doesn’t seem like a recipe, too free? Ahh — as the Song itself says again and again, “Do not stir up love until it pleases. Do not rouse the lovers till they’re willing.”

Serve at the Pesach Seder, and also in secret on your wedding night. And on every wedding anniversary. And every once in a while, but not too often, on a night when you want to celebrate and embody your love.”

The Journey Through the Hagaddah: Shabbat Pesach 5778

A seder is a journey. Step by step by step. Told in the Hagaddah, it has morphed through the centuries and resonates even today.

Today’s Torah portion from the Book of Exodus tells us that our children should ask why we are celebrating Passover. The text answers its own question,

And it shall come to pass, when you come into the land which the LORD will give you, according to G-d’s, that you shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service, that you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, when G-d passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when G-d smote the Egyptians and delivered our houses.’” (Exodus 12:25-27

This is the origin of the Passover seder. You should tell your children on that day. What the Lord did for you when you went forth from Egypt.

It is about memory. Remembering we were slaves. Remembering that moment we became free. Each of us. Each and every one of us. The whole mixed multitude that went with us. Still later in the chapter, with one law for citizens and one for the resident aliens, the stranger amongst us, because again, we remember what it was like to be a stranger.

And we learn that our children are supposed to ask questions. “What is this?” Today we have Four Questions that our students dutifully learn, “Why is this night different from all other nights.” Everything we do at the seder is different from a regular dinner. It is designed to get our children to ask “Why.”

But the seder and the hagaddah are not carved in stone. In the Cairo Geniza, according to the book, Sacred Trash, there were hagaddot found that had two questions or three. There was one with five questions. So my question today, is what other questions would you ask?

I might ask, why did G-d have to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Wasn’t there another way? I might ask how the Sea of Reeds parted. I might ask where is the rest of Miriam’s song. I might ask when will Elijah come.

Each of us is to see ourselves as though we went forth from Egypt, out of the narrow spaces. How are each of us reborn? What narrow space are you escaping?

As part of Judaism Rocks, our interactive family program, we asked our children what other symbols today would they put on the seder plate. The answers may surprise us. One wanted to put a dog collar on for dogs that don’t have homes. Still another wanted a lego piece for children who don’t have parents. Still another wanted bitter kale for remembering those we have lost.

The single recurring theme this year, was adding a strawberry. Why a strawberry you might ask. Because they bleed. To remind us of gun violence, a modern plague. Six families added something to the seder plate about gun violence. It is what our children are thinking about. They want to be free from the terror of gun violence and school lock down drills. That is powerful stuff. As I have said before, quoting the Talmud, much I have learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues and the most from my students.

Other things have been added to the seder plate. We have many additions on ours at home. An orange for inclusivity (there are two stories of the orange!). Olives for peace. Coffee beans and tomatoes for fair wages. This year we added strawberries for gun violence and white coconut to continue the conversation about racism.

In our service in which our service is more of a discussion, one congregant argued that by adding to the seder we dilute the story of the Exodus. His own granddaughter argued with him that she is afraid of gun violence in her public school and so it makes sense to her.

I would prefer to see it as enriching the seder, rather than diluting it.

But back to our hagaddah. One of the more energizing portions of the Maggid, the story is the story of the Four Sons (I would prefer the Four Children!). The earliest mention is in Mechilta, an early midrash on Exodus. It is also in the Talmud Yerushalmi.

As a child I would always angle to be the Wise Child. Even then I railed against the Wicked Child, how dare we cast him out! How dare we assume he or she might not want to come back in? Or that a person couldn’t change?

As an adult I appreciate the midrash that each of the children is a part of us at different times in our lives. That helps. Some. I love the Family Participation Hagaddah: A Different Night, for collecting art work of the Four Children all in one place. And I enjoy the song set to the tune of Clementine (which I made everyone sing).

The Four Sons are based on the idea that four times in Torah we are told to tell our children.

  • The Wise Child comes from Deuteronomy 6:20-23. “What are the testimonies, the statures and the ordinances which the Lord our G-d has commanded you?”
  • The wicked child is found in Exodus 12:26-27, today’s portion: “What is this service to you?” To you and not to him or her. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
  • The simple child in Exodus 13:14 says simply, “What is this?” You shall say to him, “With a mighty hand did the L-rd take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  • And the one who doesn’t know how to ask, you must take the first step according to Exodus, saying, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, “Because of this, the L-rd did [this] for me when I went out of Egypt.”

Chabad does a good job explaining it here:

And here:

The Chabad Rebbe Menachem Schneerson actually taught that there was a Fifth Child, the one not even present at the seder, who maybe completely unaware of his or her Jewish heritage. We then have an obligation so seek those out. It is part of why there are always guests at our seder table.

So Chabad adds to the seder!

Another explanation can be found here: comparing the midrash, the hagaddah and the Torah.

For modern Israeli poetry, art and song about the Four Children, try this:

But none of those explanations answer my puzzle. Why is the answer the same for the Wicked Child and the One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask? “This is what the Lord did for me…” So how are these different?

I studied this very text with one of my colleagues in New Jersey this week and decided that really it was a question of tone. The Wicked Child emphasizes, almost sneers or mocks his question. So the tone for the Wicked Child emphasizes what G-d would do for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for him or her. Had he or she been there they would not have been redeemed.

Someone in the congregation argued persuasively that it is because there is only one story of the Exodus. It was a good argument. But then I am left with the issue of the Avot prayer. In explaining the repetition of the G-d of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (and let’s not forget the matriarchs!), since there are no extra words, it is because each had a different experience of the Divine. So each person experiencing the Exodus would have had a different experience.

I have a collection of Hagaddot. Some I bought for the beautiful artwork. Some I bought for the language. Every year I buy a new one. Last year it was Harry Potter. The year before it was one about baseball. This year it was Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s called the Welcome Seder. There are those about Israel and those about the Holocaust. There are ones aimed for young children and others for women. Rabbi Arthur Waskow compiled the Freedom Seder the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. We experienced some of that last year in the Black-Jewish seder we hosted here. Tonight, in Israel there will be another Freedom Seder to highlight the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation by the Israeli government. Almost every Jewish organization I know publishes a seder supplement. HIAS about refugees, T’ruah about a women’s place to stand up. The Religious Action Center about gun violence. Bend the Arc about poverty. Mazon about hunger. These enrich our seders.

Each of us, going forth from Egypt, from the narrow spaces, has a different experience. That is what keeps the Hagaddah fresh and new and important from generation to generation. That is why we sing, “B’chol dor vador…in every generation.” That is why Passover is the most celebrated of all the Jewish holidays in America, because it is still very relevant to us today. May your seders sparkle with questions and answers, joyous song, children of all types. And Freedom.

The Journey of The March for Our Lives

(Exodus 25:8)

V’ah-su lee mik-dash v’sha-chantee b’to-ham…
Va-anakhnu n’varaykh Yah may-atah v’ahd olam.
(Psalm 115:18)
Build Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.
And we will bless G-d from now until forever.

What are we preparing ourselves for? What does it mean to be a sanctuary? This is Shabbat Hagadol…the BIG Shabbat, the Great Shabbat and in the old days the rabbi would only give a sermon twice a year. Today, to teach you how to prepare for Passover and Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to teach you how to do teshuvah, repentance, so that you were prepared for Yom Kippur.

The special haftarah from Malachi this morning talks about what will happen if we are prepared.

“But for you that fear My name the sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings; and you shall go forth, and stamp your feet and march.

So being angry and stamping your feet and marching seems to be appropriate for this day of preparation.

Remember, you, the law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, even statutes and ordinances.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

And he shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.

That’s what we are preparing for. The GREAT day. Elijah the prophet is coming…just like Elijah the prophet will be there at each of our Passover seders, just like Elijah the prophet is present at every brit milah, ritual circumcision.

How do we know when Elijah comes? When the hearts of the children and parents are turned to one another.

There are lots of stories about Elijah. One of my favorites:

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah while the prophet was standing at the entrance to the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Rabbi Yehoshua asked him, “Do I have a place in the world to come?” Elijah replied, “If the master desires it.”

As Elijah spoke, Rabbi Yehoshua looked about in wonderment. Perhaps it was only the echo from the cave before which he stood, but later on when he would speak of this meeting with Elijah, he would say, “I saw two of us but I heard the voice of a third.”

Rabbi Yehoshua asked Elijah another question about the future time: “When will the Messiah come? Elijah answered, “Go and ask him, himself.” Rabbi Yehoshua was amazed: “You mean I could find him, talk to him—now? Where is he?” Elijah said, “You can find him at the gates of Rome.” “How will I recognize him at the gates of Rome?” asked Rabbi Yehoshua. Elijah told him, “There he sits among the lepers whom you will find unwinding all of their bandages at the same time and then covering their sores with clean bandages. The Messiah is the only one who unwinds and rewinds his bandages one at a time, thinking, ‘I want to be ready at a moment’s notice if I am called’.”

Rabbi Yehoshua traveled from the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai all the way to Rome—a journey that seemed to take him only a few steps. He was not frightened by the strong gates of the enemy nor the pitiful condition of the lepers. Keeping in mind Elijah’s advice of how to identify the Messiah in the most unlikely of places among the most wretched of people, he quickly spotted the one poor sufferer who was unwrapping and rewrapping only one sore at a time.

Rabbi Yehoshua approached him and said, “Peace be upon you, my master and teacher.” The leper looked knowingly at him and replied, “Peace be upon you, son of Levi.” Rabbi Yehoshua asked him, “When will the master come?” “Today,” said the leper.

Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah in the blink of an eye. Elijah said to him, “What did the Messiah say to you?” Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “He said, ‘Peace be upon you, son of Levi’.” Elijah said, “Ah! As to your first question of me, he assured you that both you and your father have a place in the world to come.” Rabbi Yehoshua said, “But he lied to me, saying, ‘Today I will come.’ But he has not come.” Elijah said, “No, he did not say that he would come ‘today’. Rather, he was quoting a Psalm verse to you: Today—if only you will listen to His voice (Psalm 95:7). (from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)”

When will Elijah come? Today, if we listen to his voice.

And we know that Elijah taught that the voice of G-d will not be the thundering voice but that of the still, small voice.

How do we let Elijah in?

Another favorite Elijah story is in the children’s book, Just Enough is Plenty, where a peddler or a beggar arrives at a home for Chanukah. Despite their own poverty this year, the family warmly invites him in, saying that they have enough but not too much. They have just enough and it’s plenty. They enjoy latkes together. The guest delights the children by giving them coins to play dreidl and then sits on the floor to play. They all go to bed for the night. In the morning he has gone, leaving his peddler’s sack—filled with beautiful cloth for the father, a tailor and a book of Elijah’s Stories for the children right on top.

How do we let Elijah in here? When we open our doors to the hungry. When we invite everyone to our Passover seder. When we listen to the voices of our children.

This all seems appropriate as later today I will be at the Elgin Township Hall with other members of the clergy, elected officials and our own Peg reading names killed by gun violence. I am standing with the children, who are leading us. Children should not be afraid to go to school, to the mall, to the movies.

A few years ago I attended a Chicago Board of Rabbis meeting where Rabbi Joel Mosbacher was speaking. Just six months after he was ordained, his father, Lester, was murdered as he opened his check-cashing business on the South Side of Chicago. He wrestled with his grief for several years and eventually founded an organization, Don’t Stand Idly By. He explained his brother had a different response. He went out and bought a gun. What was most striking, shocking about the meeting was almost every rabbi in the room had a personal story to share about gun violence in their own lives.

About two years ago, without knowing that I know Rabbi Mosbacher, I was asked by a local group to approach our mayor and our police chief to sign on to the principles which includes a commitment to smart gun technology of Don’t Stand Idly By. We did so and both the mayor and the police chief signed on.

In today’s Torah portion we read about the wellbeing offering, the Zevach shlomim. The translation, well being doesn’t quite capture the Hebrew. Shlomim carries with it the sense of shalom, peace, wholeness and maybe that is what well being is, a sense of wholeness.

The world is not whole—any check of any news media would tell us that. It wasn’t whole when Rabbi Yehoshua spoke to Elijah. It is our obligation to work for justice. It is our obligation to not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds as we will read shortly in Leviticus. It is our obligation to work for a time when we can each hear Elijah’s voice.

For our teachers and their students and the students of the students
We ask for peace and loving kindness here and everywhere.
May they be blessed with all they need.
And let us say Amen… (Debbie Friedman, z”l)

I woke up Friday morning silently crying and singing that song. It is part of the Teacher’s Kaddish, a prayer that Jews recite when mourning. And today I am very, very sad. I am sad for our students who go to school in fear. I am sad for our African American neighbors who fear a routine traffic stop.

And I am angry. Very, very angry. Because I don’t believe this needs to keep happening. After losing Yuval I have worked on these issues. In 2000 we attended a send-off rally on Westford Common for the Million Mom March. In 2003 a neighbor in 5th grade brought his family’s gun to school. The girls in my Girl Scout troop talked about where they would hide. Under the stage in the cafeteria if the locks didn’t stick. The school didn’t think there were any problems and did not do lock-down drills.

So today I am so very, very proud of our students. The rabbis of the Talmud teach, much have I learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues and the most from my students. Today we learn from our kids—thank G-d.

I pause to I offer this Kaddish…a painful Kaddish for the people I know that were impacted directly by violence. Enough is Enough. The time is now to answer the question, “How many deaths will it take till they know that too many people have died.” Too many. Too many.

  • For Yuval Berger, my first love, killed in the line of duty in Israel.
  • For an unnamed Jewish woman in Grand Rapids, MI who was shot to death in her store just before my parents’ bookstore opened on the same block
  • For Lester Moshbacher, Rabbi Joel Moshbachers’ father
  • For all those killed in violence in Chicago including Paul ONeal.
  • For Olivia Marchand, killed by her own father as she stepped between her mother and her father arguing over college tuition, the day I presented my thesis on domestic violence
  • For Columbine, where a friend of mine was awaiting back surgery in which the hospital that the victims arrived. Soon afterwards they moved to Israel to be safer
  • For Aurora, CO where they moved back, again to be safer, and their daughter was in the next movie theater.
  • And for Aurora, IL that experienced their own terror of guns just this week.
  • For Tucson, where Simon’s family shopped at that grocery store every day and knew many of those killed and wounded when Representative Gabby Giffords was shot at a Congressman on Your Corner event.
  • For Sandy Hook, where my college roommates’ son was 6 that fateful day. He was in the other elementary school but he lost friends that day.
  • For all those in Parkland—especially Ben Wikander the grandson of former congregants of mine at Congregation Shalom and for my friend Susan, who is a retired guidance counselor there and the daughter of a New York City police officer.
  • For DeCynthia Clements

For our teachers and their students and the students of the students
We ask for peace and loving kindness here and everywhere.
May they be blessed with all they need.
And let us say Amen…

Our feet are praying. Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.


(Exodus 25:8)
V’ah-su lee mik-dash v’sha-chantee b’to-ham…
Va-anakhnu n’varaykh Yah may-atah v’ahd olam.
(Psalm 115:18)
Build Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.
And we will bless G-d from now until forever.

A sanctuary is a place where G-d’s presence dwells. A sanctuary is a safe place, a place where there is no fear. Where brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity. Where G-d can dwell among us. That is what we are building. That is what we are preparing. That is the vision of Malachi. The shopping and cooking and cleaning can wait. This is real. This is now.

The Journey of Relationship: Vayikra 5778

Today we begin reading the book of Leviticus. Vayikra. And He called. It is a book that is mostly about the priestly code. How should the priests act, what do they do, how do they perform all those animal sacrifices.

It is the policy and procedure manual for their job. And their job is to bring the people of Israel closer to G-d through those animal sacrifices. It seems archaic. Outdated. We no longer offer animal sacrifices to be one with G-d.

One of my professors, Rabbi Nehemia Polen talks about it as a reset button. What the priests were trying to do was to recreate that moment at Sinai when we all stood there. There is smoke and fire and quaking and shaking. There is incense and offering—something that goes up, an olah, a rising. And somehow that is supposed to connect us with the Divine and allow us to have a relationship.

You have heard me say this before. The word religion, from the Latin, means to tie back up. People are seeking a relationship, often to replace something they no longer have. When we are children our primary relationship is with our parents, who (attempt) to love us unconditionally. When we leave home, we need to replace that primary relationship and we search for something, or someone else.

Think about it from the Bible’s perspective. When G-d created man, Adam, G-d said it was not good for man to be alone so G-d created a helpmate, a partner, Eve. After Sarah died, Isaac took Rebecca to his tent and he loved her and was comforted.

Today’s portion also talks about relationship. There is a midrash about the very beginning of Leviticus. In that first word, Vayikra, the aleph at the end in every Torah, is written smaller, appearing to float above the line. As Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum tells it, “Without the aleph, you might think that G-d met Moses by chance. Looking over Moses’s shoulder, as it were, G-d says, “this was no accidental meeting. I called to you from this Tent of Meeting. I’m here, now that you’ve spent all these chapters building me a dwelling. Put back the aleph, if you please. Moses, flustered says, “But I wrote, He was dear to Moses.” To this God says, “Hmm, But maybe someone in the future would think (and they’d be wrong), that you meant, “He was cold toward Moses!” (because kar means cold) Put back the aleph so they know.” So Moses wrote the aleph as G-d commanded in a modest but conspicuous way.”

There is another midrash about an aleph. We don’t really know what happened on Mount Sinai.

From Rabbi Larry Kushner’s Book of Miracles: “No one really knows for certain what happened at Mount Sinai. Some people believe that G-d dictated the entire Torah word for word. Others believe that it included the Oral Law as well. Some believe that G-d inspired Moses. In Makot 23a and b, the rabbis of the Talmud were having just such an argument—what happened at Sinai. It teaches us that G-d didn’t give the ten commandments, but only the first two sayings. One who remembers that there is a G-d who frees people and who has no other gods will be religious. Another rabbi argued that it was just the first saying. Still another said that it was just the first word of the first saying, Anochi. But Rabbi Mendl Torum of Rymanov said, “Not even the first word. All G-d said was the first letter of the first word of the first saying, the first letter of the Alef-bet, alef” Now this is somewhat problematic, since Alef is silent. Almost but not perfectly. You see alef makes a tiny, little sound that is the beginning of every sound. Open your mouth (go ahead, do it). Stop! That is alef. G-d made the voice of Alef so quiet that if you made any other noise you wouldn’t be able to hear it. At Sinai, all the people of Israel needed to hear was the sound of Alef. It meant that G-d and the Jewish people could have a conversation.”

So the aleph gives us the opportunity to have a relationship with G-d. To tie back up into something. To bind ourselves to something important.

We no longer have animal sacrifice as a way to make us whole. What are we to do? Last night we read the section from the midrash:

Once, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Y’hoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y’hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said “Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written “Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 4:5

Acts of lovingkindness is how we make ourselves whole, how we tie back up into something, how we are holy.

Today is a reset button of another sort. Today, 30 years ago on the Hebrew calendar, I married my bashert—my destined one. My beloved. We were an improbable pair. He was older than I. He was recently separated with three kids. I was young and still mourning the death of my first love.

He wanted to learn more Hebrew. We both had wanted to be rabbis. He wanted conversation and a friend. I am not sure what I wanted but he had these gorgeous blue eyes and an intensity—particularly around spirituality, something my parents askewed, and around making the world a better place, about tikkun olam. We had long arguments about prayer and G-d and the difference between social action and social justice. We still argue about those things. We taught Hebrew School together and we took his 8th grade class to Washington for the rally for Soviet Jews. We lived out that curriculum as our feet were praying. I drove the van and he taught those kids the prophets, all the way from Boston to Virginia. Somewhere in Maryland he waxed poetic about the Cows of Bashan in Amos and told those kids that he loved me because my deep, brown eyes were like cows. Those kids, now adults with kids of their own still talk about it and how they held the sign at the rally for Peter Paul and Mary. We still sing Light One Candle.

That song became our rallying cry. It was a song we heard on our first date, a Peter Paul and Mary concert. It was the song we used at the Havdalah the night before our wedding. And again at Sarah’s baby naming.

What is the memory that’s valued so highly
That we keep alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!

Just before we got married my father had a piece of advice for Simon, something that worked well for him in his own marriage. Simon should just say, “Yes, dear.” We have discovered that it doesn’t work very well. This is not the same phrase as the midrash about Moses and G-d. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is condescending and designed to acquiesce but not really agree. In the book the book group is reading this month, the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader is given a piece of advice by her mother-in-law, Evelyn Ginsburg, to be just before her wedding, “I’m going to tell you the secret of a happy marriage. It helps to be a little bit deaf.” RGB extends that teaching, “Sometimes people say unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to be a little hard of hearing–to tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.”

A woman of valor which Simon read to me last night says, “the law of kindness is on her tongue. I admit we are still working on that one. I am not always the easiest person to live with. Marriage isn’t easy. There have been ups and downs. Learning to navigate the roller coaster isn’t easy.

There is a lovely children’s story—the Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco which seems particularly poignant as we have been telling stories of our journeys all year, our incredible journeys.

When Patricia’s great grandmother came to the United States, the only things she had from her old home in Russia were her dress and her babushka which she liked to throw up in the air like she was dancing. When she outgrew her dress, her mother made a quilt to help her remember home. The border of the quilt was the babushka. The quilt became the tablecloth for Shabbat meals. When she fell in love, her husband gave her a gold coin for wealth, a dried flower for love and a piece of rock salt so their lives would have flavor. They were married under the quilt as chuppah. They wrapped their baby in the quilt to welcome her to the family. The baby was given gold, flower, salt and bread. Gold so she would never know poverty, a flower so she would always know love, salt so her life would always have flavor and bread so she would never know hunger. When her daughter grew up and got married, in the wedding bouquet she carried a gold coin, bread and salt. She welcomed her daughter to the world wrapped in the quilt. When her daughter married, again there was gold, bread and salt in the bouquet. Patricia was welcomed to the world with the quilt. It was the tablecloth at her first birthday party. It was the quilt she pretended was a bullfighter’s cape or tent in the steaming Amazon jungle. When she was married it was the chuppah and she carried gold, bread and salt and a sprinkle of wine so she would always know laughter. She then welcomed her daughter into the world with the same quilt.

But there is something else. Early in our relationship, we stopped to tell one particular couple we were going to get married. Nancy was digging in the garden. She stood up, hugged us with those muddy hands and exclaimed, “Alyn, get the champagne.” From this we learned a very important lesson. Always have a bottle of champagne in your fridge. You never know when you might need to toast the big moments—like today—or the little moments, day by day by day. We invite you to join us to celebrate this milestone with a toast of l’chaim and a sip of champagne, a mimosa, just as we did 30 years ago.

Today is a reset button. He still has those blue eyes. He still has that intensity, that deep thinking, the soul of a poet, the commitment to tikkun olam and making this world a better place. He still cares passionately and quite simply I still love him.

So I repeat the words of my Bat Mitzvah haftarah, that we read to Oeach other at our wedding:

I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.
Arise my love, my fair one and come away with me,
For lo, the winter is past
The Rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth
The time of singing has come
Arise my love, my fair one and come away.

The Journey of Love: Build Me a Sanctuary: Terumah 5778


(Exodus 25:8)
V’ah-su lee mik-dash v’sha-chantee b’to-ham…
Va-anakhnu n’varaykh Yah may-atah v’ahd olam.
(Psalm 115:18)
Build Me a Sanctuary that I might dwell among them.
And we will bless G-d from now until forever.

 Give Love Wings
Give your love wings
To soar with the music and the prayers
That dance between us,
That sing around us,
That rise shimmering
To the heavens
In radiance and glory.

Give your heart freedom
To float breathless
In the vastness of the universe,
To become one with the Soul of all Being,
To enter the majesty of light
Pulsing from the ancient yearnings of our hearts.

Give your love wings, to soar.
And when you reach G-d’s holy place,
Opens your hands in blessing.

© 2018 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

Today is about love. And building. And love. In Hebrew we have two words for love. Ahavah and chesed.

This text we just sang says that G-d will dwell “Among them”, not in it, the sanctuary

G-d wants them to build a mishkan, a sanctuary, so that G-d may dwell among them, the people, not the sanctuary.

As Cantor Julia Cadrain beautifully teaches, G-d is contained not in the physical space but G-d exists in the spaces between people and the relationships we have with each other.

We celebrate Shabbat to re-create. As Kiddush tells us, to remember two things, the Creation of the World, when G-d rested on the Seventh Day, and the Exodus from Egypt. When the Israelites created, built the mishkan, they built it to recreate the feeling of standing at Sinai. At Sinai there was fire, and smoke, lightening, and yes, even fear. But G-d and Moses could have a conversation. They could come face-to-face. G-d and the people of Israel were in a relationship. And it is a relationship based on ahava and chesed.

We, too, even today, have the opportunity to recreate those moments. Our tradition teaches that our houses are a little mishkan, a little sanctuary. A mikdash me’at. When we celebrate Shabbat our houses re-create the mishkan. When we gather at the Shabbat table, the table is the altar, the wine and the challah, recreate the moment in the mishkan with the Shechinah, the Indwelling Presence of the Divine and when we sing, the Divine draws close.

That’s the ideal. That’s in a house filled with “shalom bayit., peace of the house.” What if it’s not? This week many people celebrated Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to love. Some might feel that it is not a Jewish holiday—and it is not. But it can be fun and break up the doldrums of February which can be a dreary month.

Because of Valentine’s Day, there are two other observances. Jewish Women International sponsors this very Shabbat, Shamor L’Amour, Keep or Guard Love. We’ve participated in this as a congregation before.

And Wednesday found me, Maureen, Gareth, Joy and Barbara at an event started by Eve Ensler, internationally because no one, least of all on Valentine’s Day should be hurt physically, or emotionally in love. Locally it is sponsored by the Community Crisis Center and others here, One Billion Rising—the Long Red Line. I serve on the organizing committee. This year I took a back seat.

This year it was held at Elgin Community College and included a haunting art exhibit and speeches by our own Maureen, our police chief, Jeff Swaboda, a spoken word artist and student at ECC who shared a powerful poem she wrote as a survivor, Elisa Lara of the Human Relations Commission and Pastor Katie Shaw Thompson. It was an event that brought hope. We will not stand idly by while women are hurt.

Because the statistics are staggering. One out of four women will experience sexual violence sometime in their lifetime. Let that sink in—one in four. That’s more than will experience breast cancer. One in four. Regardless of socio-economic, educational, religious, ethnic, cultural background. One in four. Even in the Jewish community.

And in this age of #MeToo, it is critically important to hear women’s stories of abuse, validate them and promise that we will not allow it to happen. So as your rabbi, I say to you, if you are a victim or a survivor, there are resources to help. So I say to you, as your rabbi, we have policies and procedures here as well. Recently I attended a workshop offered by the Chicago Board of Rabbis and JCFS on sexual harassment in the Jewish workplace.

Long Red Line—One Billion Rising was the morning.

Then I had a lovely lunch at Sweet Berries with Simon to celebrate our love. Because really, when I woke up that morning, I realized, profoundly, that I am very lucky to have found Simon and to have Simon in my life. Not everyone is so lucky.

Later that day, while I was teaching Bar Mitzvah students, we got the news about Florida. Oh, no. Not again. Those were my first thoughts. And why? Why? I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

In Hebrew the word for house is Bayit. That’s why we talk about Shalom Bayit. Peace of the house. The word for school is Bait Sefer. The word for synagogue is Bait Tefilah, or Bait Midrah or Bait Knesset. Yes, Kneseth. House of Assembly. Just like this very synagogue, Kneset Israel or the assembly, the parliament in Israel the Knesset.

Our houses should be safe. All of our houses. Our homes. Our schools. Our synagogues. My home. My school. My synagogue. This synagogue.

It is our obligation to make each of these houses, a house filled with shalom bayit, a house of peace. They need to be founded on the principles of love and understanding. Respect. Kindness. Compassion. Loyalty. They need to be secure, stable and safe. They need to be built on love.

That doesn’t mean it is always easy. It is not. Sometimes the details are not clear.We need to navigate differences and disagreements, decision making. How do we handle disappointments? Anger and sadness? Life’s ups and downs?

By finding connections between people. By finding the Divine in the spaces between people. By building a sanctuary so that G-d can dwell among us.. A mishkan.

The word Terumah, the name of today’s portion, means donation, or offering, or gift. It is a very detailed portion with the plans of how to build the mishkan and what those gifts or offerings should be. Our part of the portion covers how to make all of the curtains, the material weavings. Debbie Friedman captures the spirituality behind these details in her song, Holy Places:

These are the gifts that we bring
that we may build a holy place.
This is the spirit that we bring
that we may build a holy place.
We will bring all the goodness
that comes from our hearts
And the spirit of God will dwell within…..

These are the colours of our dreams
we bring to make a holy place.
This is the weaving of our lives
we bring to make a holy place.
We will bring all the goodness
that comes from our hearts
And the spirit of love will dwell within…..

These are the prayers that we bring
that we may make a holy place.
These are the visions that we seek
that we may build this holy place.
Let our promise forever be strong,
let our souls rise together in song,
that the spirit of God
and the spirit of love,
will dwell within.

Debbie Friedman

I want to tell you a story, that Rabbi Larry Karol found online in Reader’s Digest. Written by Glennon Doule Melton.

She told of how she once met with her son Chase’s teacher to receive tutoring so that she could help her son with mathematics (long division) at home. She and her son’s teacher began to speak about the ways in which the teacher tries to assist students in building a strong class community.

The article continued: “And then she told me this.
Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an 
exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. 
She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else? Who can’t think of anyone to 
request? Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or ‘exceptional citizens.’ Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed 
by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”

She is finding the connections between people. She is making the connections between people. She is building a sanctuary in her classroom. She is not alone.

In this morning’s haftarah, Solomon is enjoined to build another sanctuary and to not use any iron tools. From this we learn the roots of Shalom Bayit. From this we also learn the roots of the tradition of not using a knife to cut the challah on Shabbat.

We have the opportunity to build something very special here. A place, a space, a sacred place where people can find connection. Where people can find G-d.

May each of us build a home filled with Shalom Bayit. And may our homes include our schools, our b’tai sefer and our synagogues, our b’tei kneseth. May they be filled with connections between people and filled with the indwelling presence, the shechinah of the Divine. May we build them on love. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. These beautiful words and tune written by my friend, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, after the birth of his daughter right after 9/11. It says it all:

“God, be with all who are alone and lonely;
let them know that they have a Friend.
Hear those who speak but are not heard;
let them know that there is One who understands.
Take all who are afraid and give them hope; take those who have been hurt and give them courage.
Give us strength to make this world a place of peace and mercy. Help us know that You are with us and in us, whenever we work for a better life.”
May we do that work every day, knowig that there is always more that we can give.

A Silent Kaddish for Parkland
For our teachers, and their students and the students of the students.

We ask for peace and lovingkindness.
Here and everywhere.
May they be blessed with all they need.
With courage, with strength, with compassion.
At Mount Sinai, the mountain quaked.
The mountain smoked.
The lightening thundered
The thunder was lightening.
The world was upside down.
The people were afraid.

And G-d spoke. The people heard.
There was even a voice for young children.

Today, the world is upside down again.
The people are afraid.
Their children scream.
The blood runs red.

Not again, Lord. Not again.


Can we hear G-d speak?

G-d said,
Do not murder.
Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Take care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger.

“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.”

Today there are many voices.
Too many voices.
I want scream.
I have only dry tears.

Whose child will be next?
Whose child will I have to bury?

How did this happen?


I cannot pray.
In the face of violence
I need silence.

I have no words.
No words will bring comfort.
No words will bring those children back.

In the face of inaction
I need action.
To stop the blood.
To mend the hearts.
To rebuild our wills.
To find courage and strength.

To build our world on love.

The Journey of Leaving and Becoming Free: Bo 5778

If only you could know
The things I long to say
If only I could tell you
What I wish I could convey
It’s in my ev’ry glance
My heart’s an open book
You’d see it all at once
If only you would look

Just like Ariel in the Little Mermaid. If only…we could find our voice…that is what today’s portion is about.
How do we tell our story?
Why does this story matter?

The text says:
And the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh. Bo. Come to Pharaoh.

Moses had to meet Pharaoh where he was…even though he really didn’t want to. Even though he really didn’t think he was capable. Even though he didn’t really think he had the right words. Moses needed to find his voice.

But Pharaoh was stubborn. His heart was hardened. And he needed a little more convincing. OK, a lot more convincing. So Moses and Aaron had to go again to Pharaoh. They had to find their voice.

We have to find our voice too. We have to find our voice for two reasons. The first is the text tells us, “When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this, you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, while smiting the Egyptians but saving our houses.”

They might ask not only what is this right to you, but where were you? What did you do?

This is the portion where the storyline changes. This is the first commandment to the Jewish people. This is where they begin to be not just slaves but a people, ready to do something. Ready to do G-d’s bidding. They go from being passive slaves, groaning under the weight of their oppression, to active participants.

They actively watch the lamb and then just as they were commanded put the blood on the doorposts so the Angel of Death can pass over.

Later is the portion, the child asks again, “And when, in the time to come, your child asks you, saying, “What does this mean?”, you will say to him, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

Each of us needs to see it as we were each brought out of the house of bondage, out or Egypt, the narrow place. And each of us has a role in that exodus.

When our children ask what did we do on that day…we need to be prepared to answer…this is what it means and this is what I did when the Lord brought me out of the house of bondage.

So how do we tell that story?

Part of that story, is that 82 of my colleagues were arrested this week at the Capitol, for demanding that Congress pass a Dream Act. Why is this a Jewish issue? Precisely because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are to remember that story—and treat the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the most marginalized amongst us with love, with care, with concern. This very parsha teaches us that there should be one law for citizen and immigrant alike. So I add my voice to the voices of other rabbis, “Pass the Dream Act.”

Part of that story, is that later today, or in some places right now while we are in services, women throughout the country will find their voices as they march for equal pay, for women’s health care, for justice everywhere. They are finding their voices in record numbers. Later today I will join them and add my voice to theirs. Our tradition demands, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. So that when my grandchild asks, “What does this mean to you,” I will be able to say that on that day, I was there.

Part of that story is how we tell our histories, our unique stories as families. Our students are using this book, “My Generations” by Arthur Kurzweil which we are updating and calling “Our incredible journey” as a family scrapbook. It gives families the opportunities to collect photos, documents like baby naming certificates and Bar/Bat Mitzvah certificates, wedding ketubot and more. But also things like family recipes, family jokes, family pets, favorite vacations. And yes, our immigrant ancestors. All the parts of the journey that make each family unique.

Passover demands that we tell the stories. It is the Jewish holiday that is most celebrated in the American Jewish community. It works on many levels—historical, political and spiritual. As Rabbi Laura Geller said so eloquently, “The historical level reminds us that because we were slaves, we must fight against all forms of oppression. The political level best captured in the famous words of the political philosopher Michael Walzer: “First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.” The spiritual level helps us notice that every person has an Egypt, a narrow place that keeps us from being free.”

Telling our stories takes courage. That’s what the #MeToo Movement is about. It is about being brave. It is about walking through the Red Sea, reaching the other side and bursting into spontaneous song, just like Moses. Just like Miriam who took a timbrel in her hand and all the women followed her.

Every week here we read a psalm, Psalm 30, a song for the dedication of the Temple.
What profit is there if I am silenced?
What benefit if I go to my grave?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it proclaim Your faithfulness?

Today our Torah portion demands that we rededicate to telling the stories. That we find our voice. That we speak out and speak up. May it be so. Ken yehi ratzon.

Here is what I said at Elgin Standing Together later in the day:

Just a week ago, many of us gathered to celebrate the legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. I spoke in my blog about the friendship between King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who when he marched with King felt his feet were praying. Later today we will use our feet to pray and to act for a time where justice will roll down like waters, a righteousness as a mighty stream.

Today, I bring you greetings from the Rev. Leslie Mills who was scheduled to pray but unfortunately is sick. Today, some of you may not feel like praying. Some of you may wonder what is the point. This is a year where the words “thoughts and prayers” have too often seemed hollow. Some of you may be angry. I know I am. Or sad. Or confused. That’s OK.

Today, I stand here remembering my own mom who stood at so many of these events in her lifetime. I am wearing her pin which says Hope, Dream, Imagine, Peace. It was one of her last gifts to me, made by women at the Women’s Shelter in Grand Rapids. I stand here today, proud that my daughter is here with me.

So this prayer is for our mothers and for our daughters. And yes for our fathers, our husbands and our sons.

Prayer invites the Eternal Presence to suffuse our 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

Disturb us, Eternal One, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Lord, deny to us the false Sabbath which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality.

Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action. (Mitchell Salem Fisher, adapted, in Mishkan T’filah, p. 173)

We Cannot Merely Pray
We cannot merely pray to God to end war;
For the world was made in such a way
That we must find our own path of peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to God to root out prejudice;
For we already have eyes
With which to see the good in all people I
f we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to God to end despair;
For we already have the power
To clear away slums and give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end disease;
For we already have great minds
With which to search out cures and healings
If we would only use them constructively
Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power.
To do instead of merely pray
To become instead of merely to wish;
That our world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
Jack Riemer

Those who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered

Come with me and rise
Come and rise so that others can hope
Rise so that others can dream
Rise to remember that we were created each in the image of G-d
Rise to remember that we were slaves in Egypt
To remember that we know the pain of being a stranger
Rise to demonstrate our love for our neighbors
Rise to demonstrate our love for our immigrants
Rise so we demonstrate our love of our children
Rise to feed the hungry and house the homeless
To care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the most marginalized among us
Rise instead of putting a stumbling block before the blind or cursing the deaf.
Come and rise with me.

And then later, I heard the echoes of Debbie Friedman’s Kaddish D’Rabbanan, the Scholar’s Kaddish

For our mothers and our daughters and the daughters of the daughters.
We ask for peace and lovingkindness
Here and everywhere.
May we be blessed with all we need
And let us say, Amen.

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.