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 Outdated.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.

The Journey of Three Angels: A Christmas Eve Midrash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here is what I gleaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the first verse and the chorus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey of Time: Vayigash

Jim Croce sang it best:

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

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

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

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

What is time?

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

What do we do with time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the very next line, we never really examine:

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

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

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

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

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

He is longing for retirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 for Talmud

18 for the chuppah (wedding canopy)

20 for an occupation

30 for full strength

40 for wisdom

50 for counsel

60 for mature age

70 for a hoary head

80 for superadded strength

90 for bending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Risa to say:

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

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

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

And the congregation responded with a resounding Shehechianu.

The Journey of Wandering: Miketz

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

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

Debbie Friedman, based on Genesis 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does that teach us?

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

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

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

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

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

Tefilat HaDerech—Journey Blessing

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

The Journey of Wrestling: Vayishlach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wrestled too”

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

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

It was a long night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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