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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chazak v’ametz.

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

Finding Joy in Names: Pinchas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessing on Returning To Your Birth Name

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

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

And may your name be called again
Maureen Manning

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

Finding Joy in Love: Balak and a 50th Anniversary

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

Ma Tovu

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

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

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

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

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

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have made their home a mikdash me’at.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independence Day 2017

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

The 13 states said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Finding Joy in the Ins and the Outs: Hukkat

Has anyone watched the mini-series “Dig”?

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

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

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

Here’s Breaking News of Israel’s explanation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Joy; Just Sad and Angry

Last weekend I talked about the wisdom to wait, to not respond immediately. They say you only preach the sermon you need to hear. So I listened to myself and I waited. There are four distinct recent events and they all need comment. Yet I think that there is a thread that runs through them.

This weekend we marked Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the beginning of the new month of Tammuz. Tammuz 17 marks the start of the Three Weeks, a period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, the 9th of the month of Av. Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of both Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the fall of the Warsaw ghetto. Basically, if something bad happens to the Jews it happened on Tisha B’av.

We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless, senseless hatred, sinat chinam. Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel taught that the anecdote to baseless hatred is ahavat chinam, senseless, overwhelming love. I used that as the basis of our observance of Tisha B’av a few years ago.

I am taking a class in contemplative prayer offered by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. More on that later. However, as part of it, I am looking for moments of holiness. In these four events that concern me moments of holiness are difficult to find. But they are there.

Last week a Jewish deli in Naperville was tagged with anti-Israeli graffiti. “Free Gaza” was painted on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Make no mistake. This graffiti is more than anti-Israeli. It is anti-semetic.

Schmaltz’s Deli is a much beloved hang out for my favorite local Episcopal priest and me. Life is better with a half a pastrami sandwich and a bowl of matzah ball soup and good conversation. It is what I do. Build bridges between people. Many people have stepped up to decry the hate crime. And it is a hate crime. Father Don and I both went–although separately because our schedules didn’t mesh well. The interfaith clergy attended as a group. Several politicians made appearances, including our congressman. And lots and lots of regulars just showed up to lend their support. But the act of holiness, was in the owner’s own response. Sure, he was angry, hurt, scared, confused. But when he saw the overwhelming response by the larger community, he hosted a dinner for the community to say thank you. That was a holy moment.

He was very gracious when we visited and willing to take time out from behind the deli counter to schmooze. The sign that hangs in his window says it all. Hate has no home here.  hate. Hebrew, English, Arabic Spanish, French, Russian, Germanand Khmer.

Last weekend, in Chicago, at the Dyke March as part of Pride Weekend, a woman carrying a pride flag with a Star of David was asked to leave. It seems the some people thought the star might be triggering to Palestinians. Again, make no mistake, this anti-Israeli response is anti-semitism. I unleashed a firestorm of comments when I asked on Facebook if there was a back story because it didn’t fit with what I thought I knew.

The holy moment in this story came from a post of a young Muslim woman. ADL Chicago shared her pride flag and comment on Facebook.

Read the full ADL’s response here: and you can sign the petition demanding an apology here:

This is complicated.

I have long been an ally of the LGBTQ community. Because I believe that the verse in Leviticus that has been used to create a religious prohibition against homosexuality has been mistranslated for generations. Because we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because when one group is marginalized or attacked, we all are. Because we are all created in the image of G-d. All means all. Period.

I have long been accused of having a liberal left agenda. Usually I am proud of it. Usually I believe that my social justice agenda comes not from the liberal left but from my reading of the Torah together with the classical commentaries on it. Does it mirror what is denigrated as the liberal left? Does it seem to fit with many other rabbis? Often. But sometimes left goes too far. It goes too far when it attacks a deli for foreign policies it has no control over. It goes too far when it pits one group against another at a Pride Parade. The New York Times ran an Op-Ed about the march.

Intersectionality. Say it. Intersectionality. There is an intersection between my identity as a Jew and as an American. There is an intersection between my identity as a woman and feminist and a rabbi and Jew. There is an intersection between my love of democracy and my love of Israel. The question becomes can these identities co-exist.  I believe they can and they must. I can be an American, a Jew, a Zionist, a woman, a feminist, all at the same time.

It is complicated. And anger producing.

I have never thought that any country gets it right 100% of the time. They can’t. Countries are made up of people. People try really hard but they make mistakes. So I am not an Israel-right-or-wrong kind of rabbi. I acknowledge that Israel makes mistakes. There are human rights violations and missteps. But I get concerned–no angry–when groups like the Dyke March promote positions like we saw this weekend. Ultimately that does not create the kind of pride the organizers were hoping for. It doesn’t create understanding that leads to peace or love.

We see this trend on college campuses with the BDS movement. And we see this in the Black Lives Matter platform from last summer condemning Israel for human rights violations and calling it an apartheid state. Those examples are nothing more than veiled anti-semitism from the left. And that makes me sad and angry. Because some of my most important work has been working with allies on the left for LGBTQ rights (and Jewish rights), reduction of racism, peace in the Middle East (particularly Israel), hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, gun control. Some of my best friends have stood with me on these critical issues and will continue to do so. I will continue to work for LBGTQ rights and for black lives. My friends need to understand that I will not be silent, however, if in the process, they trample my rights and my identity.

Rather than spray painting a side walk, adding divisive language to a political platform or kicking people out of a pride parade, we need ongoing, often painful dialogue to find the commonalities. To find the real solutions to life’s most entrenched problems.

Peace is complicated. It is messy. If I thought I could have solved it, I would have gone to the Fletcher School at Tufts or the Kennedy School at Harvard. We are told to “Seek peace and pursue it.” Why two verbs? In our own homes and cities and beyond it.

The last example, however, is also about intersectionality. About in and out groups. And perhaps it is the one that makes me the saddest and angriest. While I was just beginning to think about what it means kicked out of a parade for showing your pride for two groups, your sexual orientation and your Jewish heritage in Chicago, in Israel, the cabinet was deciding not to honor an agreement from last year to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This vote happened on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz. It is about sinat chinam, baseless hatred. And politics.

Throughout the 1800s, Jews prayed together, men and women, at the Western Wall. If you need to see pictures, they appear in the more conservative-leaning Times of Israel, In 1977, when I was in Israel with a NFTY study tour, we spent Kabbalat Shabbat in the back of the Kotel Plaza singing in a mixed group–even holding hands and dancing. In 1981, I spent a lot of time “davvening” praying at the Western Wall, often with mixed groups. In 1989, as newlyweds,  my husband and I prayed together at the back of the women’s section. In 2010 I was warned about wearing my pink kippah at the Kotel. I did anyway, aware of the risks and without a problem.

However, for reasons that make no halachic sense, women’s prayer space has been restricted. Places to have a liberal (there’s that word again)or progressive Bar Mitzvah have dwindled. Women have been arrested. Forcibly removed. Beaten. Kicked. The Women of the Wall have been fighting for almost 30 years for more inclusivity and the right to read Torah, sing out loud, light a menorah at the Kotel. These prohibitions make no halachic sense. Women are obligated to pray. Those arguments have been made here and by others and can be done again.

And here’s the issue. At a time when we are mourning the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, essentially what Netanyahu did was say he doesn’t care about American Jews or our money or advocacy. Lest you think that is me saying it, Ha’aretz ran a similar opinion piece. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform Movement cancelled his trip to Israel and his meeting with Netanyahu and the fundraising journal eJewishphilanthropy ran this story:

Yet–I am still looking for holy moments–remember? Ahavat chinam–baseless love. And it found it. It wasn’t easy. However a number of Orthodox rabbis have banned together to call for a more pluralistic, welcoming Israel. I thank them for their leadership.

I am a Jewish, woman, American, feminist, supporter of Israel who works for justice for all. It is my American right.

I will continue my quest for being welcoming. For creating safe, non-judgmental spaces. For figuring out intersectionality. For finding the ways to peace. Because ultimately, that comes from the Torah. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love G-d. Because ultimately, this is holy work. It’s complicated.






Finding Joy in Leadership

Warning this one is long, but a great way to get to know me better. And the firing line questions are just fun! Need my favorite ice cream? It’s in there!

Last week I was privileged to speak at the Elgin Chamber of Commerce for their program, CEO Unplugged. An informal, no holds bar discussion about leadership and what makes us successful. The chamber hosts this program quarterly with recognized leaders of local businesses and non-profits in the community over lunch. I am grateful to Carol Gieske, their executive director and her board for selecting me and for sending me 50 questions in advance. They forced me to think about issues of leadership deeply and my role and style as a leader. What follows are my responses, the serious questions and the fun ones. Spoiler alert: my favorite ice cream is Almond Joy. The answers below follow the actual presentation fairly accurately. We sat on two bar stools just trading questions and answers. The answers were designed to be short. The program was just an hour. Each answer could have been longer I am sure!

  1. What is it that drew you to the rabbinate?

I wanted to help make the world a better place through the rabbinate. It stems from my being a Girl Scout and the ideas of tikkun olam and social justice from the ethics of Judaism. Apparently I told my 8th grade English teacher, before there were women rabbis that I would be. She remembered, I do not. I thought about it in college, even applied to rabbinical school. I became an educator. Shelved it both after my daughter was born. Then, I was driving to a sales meeting at IBM and realized that there was more I could be doing besides working as a marketing consultant, being my daughter’s Girl Scout leader and being a leader of a daily minyan prayer service.

  1. What are your day-to-day responsibilities as rabbi?

All of my responsibilities fit into the four pillars of Congregation Kneseth Israel’s vision statement. These pillars match the historical purposes of a synagogue, to be a beit tefilah, a house of prayer, a beit midrash, a house of study and a beit kneseth, a house of assembly.

  • Meaningful observance—I lead services on Friday and Saturday, holidays, lifecycle events, keeping the kitchen kosher. I have an obligation and a desire to pray and to make prayer meaningful across a myriad of beliefs and observance levels.
  • Lifelong learning—I have responsibilities for adult study, for the Hebrew School, for training Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and for my own ongoing learning as a rabbi. Inspiring people to want to know more and to find the relevance within Judaism. Encouraging congregants’ curiosity and deeper understanding, and how it fits into today’s world and each individual person’s life. That’s about meeting people where they are. I also have an obligation to model that life long learning, so right now I am taking a professional development class from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality on Contemplative Prayer. And here is the surprise, while based on individual prayer and spirituality it is improving my leadership style.
  • Building community—that is both in-reach and outreach. Almost everything I do creates community. Whether it is sitting after services or Hebrew School, schmoozing, hosting a dinner at my home or at the synagogue, attending some of the wonderful cultural events in the City of Elgin, serving on some of the committees like Women on the Brink or the Martin Luther King Commission, CERL, and more. I serve as a police chaplain. Even now I am on call—because it is Tuesday. So if I get a call, that’s why. Creating that kind of visibility—builds community.
  • Embrace diversity—we have a very diverse community, 17 foreign countries, interfaith families, a vast range of religious practice and belief. Much of what I do is navigate that range.

Day to day obligations include but are not limited to preparing Shabbat, the Sabbath services, and holiday observances, visiting people who are sick or are shut in, teaching, counseling, cheerleading, organizing, marketing, brainstorming, visioning, Then there is that whole other category—other duties as described. In a synagogue, much like many non-profits with constituents, each family thinks they are your boss and each person has a special project that needs your undivided attention. I am never bored. Unless I am waiting at a stop light. That might just be the title of my next book, “Waiting for the Light.”

  1. How did your education shape your career, and did it impact your decision to become a woman of faith? Where did you go to college?

I went to Tufts in Boston where I majored in American Studies and Hebrew Literature. I have a Masters degree in education also from Tufts and a Masters degree in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College. My ordination is from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and represents 71 classes beyond my masters. American Studies was a great major because it forced me to think in an interdisciplinary way. Tufts was great because as an American Studies major it taught me to think critically across many disciplines and to think outside the box. Let’s hear it for liberal arts education! It also enabled me to meet a wider range of Jews than those I met while growing up in Grand Rapids, and so even then I thought I might want to be a rabbi. I went to a celebration of Simchat Torah with Hillel and there was much dancing in the street and such joy. I thought the rabbis were having so much fun that I wanted to be a part of that and create that experience for others.

  1. You have spent time in working in education and as a marketing consultant, before becoming a rabbi. How has your time in the various industries shaped your leadership style with your congregation?

As a marketing consultant for high tech companies my job was to listen to people and put the pieces of a story together in order to make strategic and tactical decisions for major corporations. My job is still about listening to people. Deeply, deeply listening. What is different is that now instead of making decisions for them, I use those skills to help people come to their own decisions, either about their own life choices or what the congregation wants to do as part of the greater whole.

  1. Please tell us about your leadership style.

It is funny that this is the month I am here because even before I was asked I had written my monthly bulletin announcement about leadership styles ahead of the Board Installation. I learned much of my leadership skills in Girl Scouts. They talk about Directors, Coaches, Supporters, and Delegators.

Director: Gives very good direction and makes sure everyone does his or her job. Makes certain that rules are clear and that everyone is expected to follow them.

Coach: Uses a style that provides both direction and supervision but encourages the involvement of everyone. Will explain the work that lies ahead, discuss decisions and answer questions.

Supporter: Works with other members of the group to set goals and list steps to achieve the goals. Encourages everyone to make decisions and gives each member the help they need.

Delegator: Gives everyone a share of the work. Lets group members make decisions and take on as much responsibility as they can handle. Is there to answer questions, but wants them to take as much responsibility for their actions as possible
(Previous definitions from the The Guide for Junior Girl Scout Leaders, copyright 1994, New York, New York

Convener: Calls the group together, inspires, organizes

So I have pieces of each of those styles. I inspire, I organize. I teach. I delegate (although that is not my strongest suit, a bit too much of a control freak and I would be wise to learn from Jethro who taught this skill to Moses. I do want people to take as much responsibility as possible without it becoming overwhelming, because I believe that is empowering. I encourage, that’s the cheerleader in me. I try to be optimistic and realistic.

I would ultimately say that my leadership style is collaborative. I like to bring people along with me. I also won’t ask anyone to do anything I am not willing to do. One of my rabbis, Everett Gendler, says that a rabbi is nothing more than someone who can move tables and chairs and in New England turn the heat on. I move tables and chairs. A lot. Sometimes that angers my people. But it is also humbling. I am not above my congregation.

I also am a cheerleader. If you can think up something you want to try and it fits our vision, I will help you figure out how we can do it. Together.

There is a new term—entrepenurial rabbi. And that describes me pretty well. And I took my homework for this very seriously. One of your later questions is about social media. So I promoted this event on Facebook and asked my followers about my leadership style. Essentially, I crowd sourced the question and learned a lot in the process about how others view me. Other words included welcoming, lead by example, serious with a wry sense of humor, and the one that I found the funniest, kumbaya meets Namaste.

  1. You worked as the educational director in four Hebrew schools. What did you learn there that you have brought to Congregation Kneseth Israel?

Just as there are many kinds of leaders, there are many styles of learners. That’s important when dealing with the kids or with adult learners. I find that the more hands-on and experiential—the buzz word is project based learning—the more likely the material will be remembered. Hebrew School for decades has been a dismal failure. The research shows that there are only four things that make kids want to remain Jewish—Jewish camp, Jewish youth group, a trip to Israel or a college level course. For me, then it is all about creating Jewish memories so that when students are adults they want to access the rich tradition that is Judaism and find the meaning and the joy within it. Passing on the joy—the tools for life when life is not joyous.

  1. Please tell us about your work on social justice issues. Define your role in the rabbinate as a being a bridge builder and peacemaker?

I was just asked this week by a congregant what is social justice and our obligation as individual Jews. For me, it is the essence of who I am as a Jew. We have an obligation to do tikkun olam—to repair or fix the world. It is not unlike Girl Scouts where we are expected to leave the place better than we found it. The devil is in the details, to use that phrase. Social justice, it seems to me, and others in the rabbinate, is the core of Judaism. Every time I think I am not going to write a social action sermon, it is in the central Biblical text. And in this age of “fake news” and alleged fake news how we read scripture is critically important. In Judaism we joke a lot about 2 Jews and 3 opinions. Last week I read a prayer about once we learned one truth and it was cherished or discarded but it was one. For me, it is clearly true that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The rest is commentary. Go and study it. And all of the social justice agenda comes out of that verse.

I also think that in this age of rising anti-semitism, it is critical to be a bridge builder and a peace maker. But this is not new to me—or others. So I am active in civic groups that are trying to make Elgin better. I participate in CERL, the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders and a committee that is trying to find common ground between the three Elgin clergy groups. I am active with Women on the Brink. I chair the 16th Circuit Family Committee on Domestic Violence. I am on the Martin Luther King Commission. What all of these have in common is working for the most vulnerable amongst us.

  1. Has your role changed in recent times, with increasing social and political uncertainty throughout the religious world?

Yes—I am much more circumspect as a rabbi than I was as a lay leader or rabbinical student. A lot of my friends and colleagues, rabbis, ministers, priests have become even more outspoken but I know that we live in a political diverse world and so for me it is about the ethics and values of Judaism, which to me are very clear. It says 36 times in the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses that we need to welcome the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Even more we should love the stranger amongst us. We should love our neighbor as ourselves. We should be like G-d. Since G-d clothed the naked, Adam and Eve, we should clothe the naked, since G-d visited the sick, we should visit the sick, since G-d fed the hungry, we should feed the hungry, since G-d buried the dead, we should bury the dead.

  1. How do you balance civic engagement and your volunteer time with your professional and personal lives?

Balance. Haven’t mastered that one yet. Sometimes I choose to do things specifically on Mondays since that is my day off so that it is clear. Sometimes I do stuff in the evenings or the early morning. But it is hard to separate some of it out. I believe that in order to grow the congregation we need to be visible. So if I speak here or I do an invocation at city council is that professional or personal? And sometimes I do things with my family because they are committed to these same ideals. So while others might go to a movie or a concert, we do social justice. That means one Monday my husband who really cares about environmental issues wanted to go to a meeting at Congressman Roskam’s office sponsored by the Sierra Club. One year for our anniversary we went to a conference on refugees at the Oak Park Temple. Because that’s what we do. Even before we were married. And we will celebrate 30 years this March. But have I achieved balance? Less clear.

  1. What important leadership lessons have you learned from working in the religious sector?

There are many different leadership styles. Moses was different from Aaron was different from Miriam was different from Pharaoh. When the Israelites were building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert, they were each asked, men and women, to bring a gift, the offering of their heart. Everyone has a gift they can bring. Everyone has a contribution they can make. It is my job to find the right role for every person. Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I think the other thing I have learned—or keep learning—is that the rabbi is a symbolic exemplar. There is even a book with that title. It means that I represent much more than me, Margaret Frisch Klein. People see me as a representative of G-d or of their rabbi when they were growing up or one of their parents. Those can be very big shoes to walk in, but knowing about that kind of transference helps. The other thing that really helps is not getting caught by triangulation where one congregant tries to get you to engage against another congregant. Or one congregant brings a tale of what someone else wants. Like, “I heard people say” rather than owning it themselves or sharing who said it. It is important to be consistent and say something like, “Well tell them to come see me themselves.” Gossip can be a serious problem, especially in a small congregation. Learning to not engage in it is critical. Seeing a congregation as a family system, as Ed Friedman did in his book Generation to Generation is also useful.

I think another thing I have learned is that there are limits to collaborative leadership. Sometimes people want you to own your authority—which I believe comes from leading with compassion and leading from a place of knowledge. They want to be told what to do. What is right or wrong. So sometimes the buck stops here. It has to. Some where surprised that I, as a rabbi, would be invited to speak at an event called CEO Unplugged. But in many ways, as the mara d’atra, the master of the place, I am the CEO of the congregation.

11. Please tell us about your Energizer Rabbi blog.

When I worked at SAP, the German software company I was tasked with writing and editing am early blog and with doing some podcasts for the sales force. Those were new technologies back then. At some point, in the style of the Velveteen Rabbi who was also a rabbinical student then, I found blogging about my spiritual life a way to reach new people and to explore the depth of the experiences I was blessed to have with a wider audience and not as limiting as Facebook or Twitter. It is a way of promoting CKI.

Because there is a field for comments it is also an opportunity to deepen the conversation—but that field has been underutilized.

  1. Do your personal social issues align with your congregations?

Not always, and that can be a challenge. My views were pretty known before I was hired because of the blog and Facebook. I think the real challenge and I try to promote it, is to make sure that there is always civil discourse. I’ll be honest. That doesn’t always work because people are passionate about some of the issues. That can be especially true around Israel. There are many Jewish congregations that won’t even talk about Israel any more because it is so politically charged. I keep trying.

  1. Who has been the most influential person in your life?

I think this was the hardest question because I have been influenced by so many. If I have to pick one. I am going with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis, my rabbi in Grand Rapids when I was growing up. There is so much that I do, that he did. And apparently back then, it was cutting edge. I just thought it was the way it was. He was very active in GRACE, the Grand Rapids Area Council on Ecumenicalism. They worked passionately to make sure that buses ran past 6 amongst other social justice issues. He took me to the track and introduced me to running. There is not a day, especially around the High Holidays that I am not grateful for his leadership. Others would be my parents who set me on a road of social justice, based on their understanding of Jewish ethics, my Girl Scout leaders, Dr. Jesper Rosenmeier and Dr. Sol Gittleman at Tufts, Dr. Rev. David Ferner who I still call my spiritual director, and my chevruta partner, my study partner in New York, Rabbi Linda Shriner Cahn.

  1. Discuss the impact of the religious intermingling within your congregation.

It is hard to balance the range of religious observance at CKI. We range from some who grew up Orthodox or describe themselves today as Orthodox to people who grew up Reform, even classical Reform like my husband. Some thought that Conservative Judaism would be a good, middle of the road, egalitarian option but some found it too limiting and too rigid. The lines between denominations continue to blur. Perhaps the better description is “Just Jewish”. I am using “fiercely independent.”


  1. How do you connect interfaith activities with your leadership and the congregation?

Interfaith can mean several things. I proudly belong to the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders, an interfaith organization in the city. I also serve on the U46 Clergy Council. We are members of Elgin Cooperative Ministries. All of those have the desire to work on basis of what is good for the city of Elgin based on our shared moral and ethical values. I serve a congregation that is roughly 65% intermarried. That also can be called interfaith. Again it is about balance and meeting people where they are.

  1. What is the most important thing you learned since joining the rabbinate?

Good Segway. It is about meeting people where they are—wherever they are on their Jewish or religious journey. I’ve learned that while I went into the rabbinate to make a difference in the world, it is even more important to make a difference in the person sitting in front of you. I know that we live here in the shadow of Willow Creek a great example of a mega-church. There is a new movement called “slow church.” Sometimes slow church is better, or more effective. What people want is to be in relationship, to be in community, to feel people care about them. Right now. Today. So giving a manicure to a dying grandmother because she really cares about her nails (see mine are horrible) can be more important than how many people attended the Passover seder. Bringing hamantaschen or chicken soup or a corned beef sandwich to a senior could be more important than the numbers at adult study. Working with a Bat Mitzvah family to find the right readings and the right project can be more important than bringing in the big, well known speaker. Those are all about meeting people where they are and creating safe, non-judgmental space where people are connected and integrated. They become invested and want to be involved in other ways. Ultimately, that model should help to fund the synagogue as well. But we know that the models are changing. Millenials seem to be involved in different kinds of ways. So this is a C-change moment for many congregations.

  1. What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into religious services?

It is really important to set boundaries. Everybody in the congregation thinks that they are your boss—and your friend—and they are. It would be possible to work 24×6, in order to meet all of their needs. That is impossible. Sometimes the criticism needs to roll off your back. It is important to take time for you. It is also necessary to remember that the ultimate boss, in this case is G-d. Above our ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, it says Da lifney atah omaid. Know before whom you stand. It keeps me humble. A good quality for a leader.

  1. How do you connect your religious responsibilities into social media?

As we talked about, I have a blog. The synagogue has a website and a fairly active Facebook page. I use Facebook a lot. It is how I most frequently learn of someone who has died or is in the hospital. It is also a way to model what I am doing in a Jewish manner. I keep it upbeat and optimistic.

  1. What was your most challenging professional moment, and what steps did you take to resolve the issue?

The most difficult moments are ones where as a mandated reporter I have to make a decision about confronting a parent about whether there might be abuse or I actually have to report. It doesn’t happen very often but I always wrestle with the best avenue. Usually there are not obvious bruises, it is much more subtle. And I never want to make the situation worse.

  1. What is one mistake you are willing to share with us, and what did you learn from it?

Sometimes being a collaborative leader is difficult. Particularly in a diverse congregation, I feel it is important to build consensus. But sometimes people just want the answer

  1. Where do you go for advice?

I have a group of very close friends and colleagues, mostly outside of Elgin that I rely on for advice. I also have what I call my “sermon panel” who read important sermons before they are delivered or published. I also, and I think this is very important in the rabbinate or clergy, I have a very good therapist. And then there are my husband and daughter 

Firing Line Questions – quick answers, please

  1. Favorite
    1. ice cream flavor? Almond Joy
    2. Book, “How Good Do We Have to Be” by Rabbi Harold Kusher
    3. Movie, Miracle on 34th Street
    4. Tv series, MASH
    5. Vacation spot, Jolli Lodge in Leland, MI or Ogunquit in ME
    6. Flavor of jelly—raspberry or apricot
    7. Adult beverage—currently–mojito
    8. Musical group—Peter, Paul and Mary
    9. Song—depends on my mood
    10. Concert you attended—Billy Joel
    11. Bagel flavor–Everything
    12. Deli—Katzs in Connecticut (halfway between MA and school in New York) with a special mention this week for Schmaltz’s in Naperville, just hit with some anti-semetic grafitti
    13. Season—which ever is in season
    14. Physical activity–running
    15. Traditional Jewish meal—Shabbat dinner of roast chicken, sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes. Chopped liver and fresh challah are a definite bonus.
  1. What are your bucket list items for retirement?

What’s retirement? Oh, yeah, Alaska, Paris to go to Giverny where Monet painted, Savanah to go the birthplace of Girl Scouting, more time on the coast of ME or in Northern Michigan, more painting or photography.

  1. What are your favorite things to do with your husband, Simon, and your daughter, Sarah?

Hiking, cooking and running. Simon and I have now hiked in roughly 25 states and five foreign countries.

  1. What do you do like to do on your days off?

Read, write, run. Coffee with friends

  1. What was one the worst jobs you’ve ever had? Best job?

A small marketing company that did sales lead generation. Management by fear. Life guard at a community pool. I quit when the adult supervisor told me when I didn’t return after a tornado warning that I was just Jewing her down. I then worked in my parents’ bookstore the rest of that summer. Best: SAP. Bright group, fantastic manager who really saw the good in people and expected us to excel and work together as a team. And was supportive of my becoming a rabbi.

  1. What are some of your favorite things to do in Elgin?

Walk/run along the river trail. Go to Gail Borden library. The Harvest Market, the Symphony, theater. Meet friends for coffee at Blue Box or Arabica.

  1. What is your favorite sport to watch or play? Favorite athlete?

Michigan football. So that leads to Tom Brady. Or Joan Benoit Samuelson as a runner.

  1. Movies or theatre? Theatre
  2. Thin crust or deep dish, Thin Crust
  3. Coffee from McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts? Tricky question.
  4. What time is your alarm set for most mornings? No alarm. Wake up naturally by 6. Wish I could sleep later.
  5. Cubs or Sox? RED SOX
  6. Bears or Packers? PATRIOTS
  7. Blue ink or black? BLACK (or purple)
  8. Tea or coffee? If coffee, regular or decaf? Coffee, high test, one cup per day.
  9. What kinds of movies do you like? Favorite movie? Sappy movies. Simon loves the Hallmark Channel. Miracle on 34th Street, Frisco Kid, Keeping the Faith
  10. If there was a movie made about your life, who would play you, and why? Meryl Streep or Mayim Bialik
  11. If you were on an island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? A book (kindle?), a bathing suit, sunscreen
  12. Which do you prefer – dress up or dress down? Depends on situation—and I debate it constantly
  13. What was the best vacation you ever had? Jolli Lodge or Ogunquit. Bar Harbor.
  14. What’s the last gift you gave someone? The last give you received?
    A book to a newly engaged couple. Bubble bath for mother’s day.
  1. What was the most fun thing you did in high school? Mini-Week chair. In college? Running the Boston Marathon. After college? Running through the castle at DisneyWorld
  2. Favorite fun hobbies? Reading, painting, photography
  3. Do you like to cook? What’s your favorite meal to prepare? Love to cook. Thanksgiving Dinner with all the family recipes.
  4. If you could only have one food for the rest of your life, which food would you choose?, steak, baked potatoes and asparagus
  5. What’s the one thing you can’t live without (not including family)? Bubble bath
  6. What’s your pet peeve? People who change appointment times or show up chronically late.
  7. Whom would you pick to have dinner with (dead or alive)? Columbus and Pope Francis and Simon
  8. Tell us one thing about you that we don’t know.   I sang at Carnegie Hall.

Finding Joy in Blindspots and Multiple Truths: Shelach Lecha

I need three volunteers who are willing to be blindfolded. Thank you!
In front of you there is an object. Reach out and touch it. What is it?

Someone calls out that it has a tail. Someone else says it feels leathery. Someone else, holding the trunk, cries out it is a statue of an elephant.

Volunteers remove their blindfolds. It is, in fact, a statue of an elephant.

Have you ever driven in your car and failed to see another car when you are changing lanes? That’s a blind spot. It can be scary and dangerous and people can get hurt.

Today’s Torah portion is about blind spots. My business colleague and teacher, Ben Gilad, a retired major in Israel’s IDF used today’s Torah portion as the first recorded example of military and competitive intelligence. He would speak to a class of business professionals about how Moses sent these 12 men into Canaan to scout out the land and to report back. They were tasked with specific questions.

  • How are the people?
  • Are they strong or weak?
  • Few or many?
  • Are the cities fortified?
  • Is the soil rich or poor?
  • Does the land have trees?
  • What kind of fruit?

All twelve returned. 40 days later—because it always takes at least 40 days to develop good intelligence. That is a standard competitive intelligence project. Any less and the information isn’t as reliable. They give Moses their report. It is a good land. A land flowing with milk and honey. It has pomegranates and figs and grapes. But the people are strong and the cities have walls and are very large. There are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites.”

It is a truthful report. As far as it goes. Caleb, who was also there, said, “Let’s go overtake it.” But ten of the men are petrified. “We can’t attack those people. They’re too strong for us!”

“And they spread an evil report,” created what we might call today, “Fake News,” no matter which side of the political equation you are on.

“The land we scouted is one that eats its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are very tall.  We saw Nephilim, the descendants of Anak there. We felt as small as grasshoppers, and that’s how we must have looked to them.”

What just happened here?

Remember what we did at the beginning of the discussion. It is actually a well known story from the Buddhist tradition that is also told in Hindu and Jain traditions and there is a Sufi Muslim version and a B’hai one. It is told frequently in business school. There is a John Godfrey Saxe poem about it. All of which ask essentially the same question,

It must, therefore, have some truth in it.

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

The moral of this story is we need to learn to see the big picture, not just the part right in front of you.

That’s what happened to the 10 Spies. They only saw part of the picture. That’s what happens to us when we only listen to one news station.

I have been thinking a lot about truth. It is hard to hold multiple truths at the same time. But that is what our tradition demands. There is an old Jewish story that became a young adult novel, “Two Truths In My Pocket,” by Lois Ruby that deals with adolescent angst. The two truths that we are to keep in our pocket are “I am but dust and ashes,” and “For me the world was created.” How do we hold those two truths simultaneously? How do we not? I keep coming back to a reading in the Gates of Prayer:

  • Once we learned one truth, and it was cherished or discarded, but it was one.
  • Now we are told that the world can be perceived by many truths; now, in the reality all of us encounter, some find lessons that others deny.
  • Once we learned one kind of life, and one reality; it too we either adopted or scorned.
  • But right was always right and wrong was always wrong.
  • Now we are told that there are many rights, that what is wrong may well be wrong for you but right for me.
  • Yet we sense that some acts must be wrong for everyone and beyond the many half-truths is a single truth all of us may one day grasp.
  • That clear way, that single truth, is what we seek in coming here, to join our people who saw the eternal One when others saw only the temporal Now.
  • The call to oneness [the Shema] is an affirmation and a goal; to speak of God as One is to commit ourselves once more to our people’s ancient quest.

So the truth is that G-d is One—and that G-d wants for us a safe environment where there are many approaches to that Oneness. The most powerful book I read last year was “Not in G-d’s Name” by Rabbi Lord Sacks. He makes a compelling argument that G-d does not want killing or wars in G-d’s name. Instead, when that happens it is a corruption of the truth and of religion itself.

What G-d wants, I believe, is for people to be like G-d. What G-d demands is compassion. As G-d is compassionate, we too should be compassionate. So the haftarah this morning is equally important. Again we have spies. This time they are rescued. By an unlikely source. Rahab, the woman of ill repute. She rescued the spies. And they, in turn, promise to rescue her when the Israelites come back to overtake Jericho.

Both are acts of compassion. And because Rahab acted compassionately and because Joshua did as well, Rahab and her family, as questionable as her reputation was, was incorporated into the Jewish people, ultimately strengthening the Jewish people. That is the truth of that story.

That is the message of today’s portions. To learn to see the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me G-d.

Finding Joy in Pluralism and Argument: Korach

This week’s Torah portion has much to talk about. It is filled with rebellion and special effects. It might be like a StarWars movie, or maybe even the new WonderWoman movie.

Yet, yesterday we had a Bat Mitzvah celebration. She is a young, bright, articulate woman, as she got to do the sermon. I delivered a charge. And I reminded her that she needs to have trust in herself. Faith in herself. Which in Hebrew are related words. There will be challenges to her leadership, there always are, but like Moses, she needs to rise above it and find a way to carry on.

The portion has a lot to say about leadership. Seems to be the theme of my month. I wrote about it for the newsletter ahead of the service to install the CKI board, the Sisterhood board and the Men’s Club board. I spoke about it at the Chamber of Commerce CEO Unplugged Event. (More on that later) I am planning a leadership development workshop. (More on that later) and then here comes Korach.

Korach challenges Moses’s authority and together with 250 other leaders, complains that Moses has gone too far, that every body in the community is holy and he should not place himself above them. He is right. Every body is holy—and we know that from the idea of being created in the image of the divine, b’tzelem elohim. We know that from being told that Israel is a holy nation, a light to the nations.

So why did Korach and his followers rebel? Because they were jealous. They felt that Moses together with Aaron and Miriam had too much power concentrated in one family and they felt that they did not need an intermediary between G-d and an individual Israelite. Korach reminds me of some current leaders who really are rabble rousers and convince others to join them—by instigating and inflaming the discussion. Inciting and provoking his supporters. That is an sermon for another day.

So confronted with this serious threat to his authority, to his leadership, what did Moses do? What was his response to this rebellion? Moses was a humble leader. More humble than any other leader before or since. He fell on his face. Then he stopped. And told the people to come back in the morning.

This is brilliant and really, really important. As Rabbi Wendi Geffen reminded us, especially, in our age of instant gratification. I want what I want when I want it and I want it now. We are used to instant communication. We are used to being able to watch whatever we want whenever we want on any device in the house. We are used to being able to order anything we want and have it delivered overnight—no, now we can actually have it delivered the same day, within hours from with either Amazon Fresh or Google Express—without leaving the comfort of our homes. And we expect instant responses to email or phone calls, with unlimited data and minutes. It wasn’t always this way. In the old days you might write a letter—a lost art—and then have to wait days, or weeks or even months for a response. You might have a phone, and can you imagine, because long distance was expensive you might have to wait until 5 when the rates dropped or even 11 when they dropped further to phone a friend.

Moses did something we just don’t do as much now. He didn’t just respond quickly and in haste. He didn’t scream his response immediately to whomever was standing there. He didn’t SnapChat his response or post it on Facebook or Instagram or tweet it for all the world to see immediately. How many of us have written that FLAME of an email and hit the send button too soon?

No. Moses fell on his face. He stopped. He paused. He waited. Overnight. Until he was calm. Until he could respond without anger. Until he could devise, with G-d’s help, a measured response. He told the rebellious ones to come back in the morning.

Korach had a point. Every Jew is holy. Every person is holy.

Now at turns out that G-d too is a wee bit jealous. And G-d devised this test of loyalty. With firepans. And G-d wiped out the 250 rebellious ones. Wow! I think most of us are not comfortable with that theology. I am sure I am not.

But after the fire, G-d commands Moses to rescue the firepans because they have become sacred, holy. Those firepans were hammered into sheets and that is what plated the altar. It reminds me of the ritual at the Passover seder. When we pour out a drop of wine for each of the 10 Plagues, when we remember that the Egyptians had to die in order that we might taste freedom. It reminds me of the stumbling stones in Berlin. It reminds me of our new ner tamid, out of fused glass to remember the atrocities of Kristalnacht and the Holocaust. We must remember those who died. Whether we agree with them or not.

We learn for from Korach. Pirke Avot teaches us that “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.” (Pirke Avot 5:17)

We know the song Tzadik Katamar, the righteous shall flourish like a date palm. From Psalm 92. We sing it every Shabbat.

But thanks to Rabbi Wendi Geffen, I was reminded that the rabbis see it as a code, a clue to this week’s parsha. The last letters of the phrase, Tzadik Katamar Yifrach, Koof, Reish Chaf spell Korach. His opinion is preserved, too. His truth is preserved, too.

We Jews argue all the time. We joke about two Jews and three opinions. We talk about the man on the deserted island who built two synagogues so he had one not to attend. But we need to be careful. Our arguments need to be like Hillel and Shammai. Like Moses. For the sake for heaven. We need to do what they did—to listen—really, really listen and to respond slowly and carefully to honor the other person—even if that person is rebelling. Even if that person is flat out wrong. That’s the humility of Moses’s leadership.

So think the next time you get that inflammatory email before you jot off a response and hit send.

Finding Joy in Memory and Counting: Shabbat Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…This is how we count to make sure we have enough people for a minyan. Why? To avert the evil eye.

The musical Rent, in its song Seasons of Love, also talks about counting. How do we measure a year in the life of someone:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure – measure a year?
In daylights – in sunsets
In midnights – in cups of coffee
In inches – in miles
In laughter – in strife

In – five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
It’s time now – to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Today we begin the book Bamidbar, and we heard a wonderful d’var Torah last night about being between Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place and Eretz Zavat Chalav, the Land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land. In between there is a great deal of wilderness, midbar. How we wander, how we navigate that wilderness, the desert, is the important part of the journey of life.

In English we call this book, the Book of Numbers. We start by counting. Taking a census. Everybody counted, well at least all the men over 20 who were eligible to serve in the military. Not the women, children, slaves, senior, disabled, the Levites. It begs us to ask the questions, “Whose here? Whose with us?”

It is an Interesting portion for this day, which is the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend.

People think they don’t count. “Rabbi, I’m not religious” they say in an apologetic tone. “I didn’t go to Hebrew School.” “I didn’t learn anything” “I don’t keep kosher.” “The mumbo jumble makes me uncomfortable.” “I am not sure I believe in G-d.”

And yet, we are told that there are 6000 Jews in the Fox River Valley. Jews that the federation is willing in count. And yet, we are told the demographics are changing. And yet, we are told how we think about joining, belonging, affiliating is changing. Even how we count is changing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory and counting.

In this portion, each of the tribes is counted, equally. And then as we will see next week, each tribe presents a gift to be used in the sacrificial system, to get the ball rolling. These are of equal weight, of equal value, and none diminishes the other. 750 shekels.

The Torah census is clear, there were 603,550 men prepared to fight. And that count is broken down by the tribes: Reuven, Shimon, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Naptali, Asher, Dan, Gad, Ephraim and Menashe. 12 tribes. Rabbi Irwin Huberman points out, “Each of those tribes had a unique path, a unique skill and destiny. Issachar was the scholar. Gad the warrior, Naptali the free spirit. Benjamin was ravenous. Zevulun was the business person. Dan the judge. Asher was prosperous. They were not, a homogenous nation. Rather it was a collection of tribes—each with its own communal personality.”

Each one making a difference in there own way. Each one finding their own meaning. Each one needed. Each one counting.

That’s true for us today. People come to the synagogue to find meaning. To find community. To find G-d. To be part of something bigger. To be counted. Each in their own way. Some come for the services. Some come for the music. Some come to hear the ancient words. Some come to hear the modern words. Some even come for the rabbi’s sermon or teaching.

Some come to see friends and catch up. Some come for the social action. Some come for the Torah School. Some come for the Sisterhood or the Men’s Club. And some come for the cookie. Yes, as a children’s book tells us, G-d loves cookies too.

Each one seems to be its own tribe, expressing its connection to G-d and the Jewish people through its own lens. Some people express spirituality through the arts, through social action, through volunteering. Some are philanthropists or scholars. Some are leaders. Some champion Israel. Some pride themselves on being Americans, and then may debate whether they are Jewish Americans or American Jews. Some are proud agnostics or atheists and some cannot understand how that is possible and still be Jewish. All have a place in the tent.

The truth is, each brings their own gift, their own unique skill. Their own passion. Just like the tribes we are reading about this morning. And the truth is we need them all. We need each and every one of them to be counted. To find their own meaning and place in this tradition.

In Finding Joy, the book we are reading for the Omer, we learn that happiness is found in finding meaning. “We can experience transcendent joy during our entire life when it is filled with what interests, excites, and involves us and brings a personal understanding of ourselves and what raises us to a mystical level of joy.” Frederick Buechner might have agreed since it is close to his own definition of call, ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ That’s happiness. That’s standing up and being counted.

In one of the Psalms, Psalm 90 that we use mostly during the High Holidays because it exhorts us to return, to do teshuva, to recognize that our lives are short and that G-d is Eternal, we read,

The days of our years are threescore years and ten or even by reason of strength fourscore years.
Yet is their pride but travail and vanity.
For it is speedily gone and we fly away.
Who knows the power of Your anger and Your wrath according to the fear that is due to You?
So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord,

So teshuva in this Psalm is a two way street. We need to return, to come back, to repent,to do the hard work of reconciliation, and it seems G-d also needs to return. We sing something similar in Eitz Chayim Hee: Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha V’nashuva, Chadesh, Chadesh Yameinu, Kederdem. Return to us O Lord and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

The very first piece of Talmud I learned, was from Pirke Avot,

Rabbi Elieezer would say: Repent one day before your death. V’shuv yom echad lifnei miticha.

That begs another question, and the rabbis ask it. How do we know which is the day before we die? His answer is that we should return every day, today, for perhaps tomorrow we will die. (Talmud Shabbat 153a). And quoting Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:8, “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil should be on your head ”

This was not because it was after Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer and now we could wear white. No, rather, so we would be prepared to go to our grave.

So teaching us to number our days, to make them count, to be always aware that life is short—and that we don’t know how short, seemed particularly appropriate when I began to put this sermon together.

Teach us to number our days. We do that at this season of counting, as we continue to count the omer. Day 46. Almost to Sinai.

Merely to survive is not a measure of excellence or even a measure of cunning our High Holiday machzor teaches.

No, our job is to invest our lives with meaning. Our job is to return, to meet G-d.

I thought that was the end of the d’var Torah.

Then I had a rabbi moment.

I was asked to help design a gravestone for a former member. He died two years ago this month. He was a bachelor, leaving no children. His guardian, not Jewish but a good friend of the man, a real mensch, took care of all the arrangements for the burial. When I got the call two years ago for the burial plot I was told there would be no funeral since there was no family. I agreed to meet them out there. There should be some words. That’s what Jews do. 18 of us showed up. 18 of us were counted.

So now it is time to do the gravestone. What was his Hebrew name? There was no record of it. There was no record of him. But he had his mother’s gravestone picture and his fathers. I deduced a Hebrew name from that. So there will be a grave marker with a Hebrew name.

Pirke Avot also teaches in the name of R. Shimon: There are three crowons. The crown of Torah. The crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name excels them all. (Pirke Avot 4:17)

Harry Rose, now has been restored, has been elevated, he now has the legacy of a good name—Areih ben Peninah. Harry Rose lived a quiet unassuming life right here in Elgin. He served in the Navy from 1950 to 1952. He returned. He worked for the post office. He played cards. He attended Men’s Club events. And now we remember. How appropriate this Memorial Day Weekend. We have memorialized him and we have counted him.

Archibald MacLeish wrote this poem:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

That’s the call of this Memorial Day. That’s the call of our lives. Stand up and be counted. Return one day before our deaths. Find meaning in our lives. Find joy. Find G-d.