The Journey to Covenant: Noach 5778

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

We know this story.

Noah was a righteous man, in his generation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign of the covenant.

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

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

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

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

The story goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey Through Holy Moments

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

A quote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am enough. Each of us in enough.

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

What does it mean to be holy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey To Truth: Kol Nidre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This became the central prayer of the High Holidays.

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

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

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


Our Incredible Journeys: Erev Rosh Hashanah

Where are you going my litle one..little one
Where are you going my baby own
Turn around and you’re two
Turn around and you’re four
Turn around and you’re a young babe
Going out of the door.


These were the words I heard in my head as I was walking the labyrinth as part of Rosh Hodesh Elul. This is the first question G-d asked Adam and Eve. Where are you? That’s the question we must each ask ourselves. Where are you? Where are you going? When you turn around, when you do teshuvah, turning, where will you be?

Last fall we had two members who told their stories, their journeys at Friday night services. Saul Mariasis and Dan Schlack. They were unique. Powerful. Important. Interesting. Saul was born in Argentina and has served in the Argentinian, Israeli, US militaries and the Norwegian merchant marine. He is my cherish bimah partner, week in and week out. Dan is married to the Rev. Karen Schlack, who helped him find his way back to Judaism. He is now a CKI board member and is the head greeter for our High Holidays this year.

Each of us at CKI has a unique and important story of how they came to CKI, for some how they came to or returned to Judaism. The story of your journey.

Storytelling is important. Powerful. It is what the Torah is about. A collection of sacred stories. A collection of stories of imperfect people on a sacred journey. A collection of stories of people yearning for a better life. Yearning to find G-d. And each one did it differently. It is the story of us.

People want to connect through storytelling, by sharing their personal journeys, by being heard, by listening to others. That’s what makes the Moth Radio Hour so successful

Storytelling is so important that a new church in Chicago which was recently featured on the Today Show is built around storytelling. Their vision: Tell true stories. Share good food. Worship beautifully.

Said their pastor Anderson, “It’s why we are doing this storytelling. A true first-person narrative, these shared stories, feels sacred in and of themselves. I think all of us …worry that young people aren’t in church. Do a better job! A story is more than just your story, it’s shared experiences and all of that.”

These shared stories are told around a table. To accomplish that, they meet in a pub. They have already outgrown their space.

It is why our Kiddushes and Oneg Shabbats are so important. Why we are grateful for the Sisterhood and the Phelans for tonight’s Apples and Honey Fest. Telling our stories around a table builds community.

It is the reason for another new organization, One Table, founded by Aliza Kline, to bring young Jews together to experience the joy of Shabbat, gathered around the table with good food and lots of stories.

Of the Dinner Party, a new organization that brings people together, mostly 20s and 30 somethings who have experienced significant loss, in order to heal while they share stories of their journey around a table with more good food.

Religion is from the Latin, religio, to tie back up into. It is what people are searching for, something that makes them feel supported, cared for, loved. Something to replace what they missed when they left home—on a journey—not unlike Abraham and Sarah.

The last commandment in the Torah, in the parsha, portion we just read last weekend, tells us that each person should write his or her own Torah. “Therefore, write down this poem,” (Deut 31:19) As Rambam interpreted it write yourselves a copy of the Torah containing this poem. Even if you inherited a Torah scroll from your parents you should write one yourself. If you don’t know how to write you can commission one for you. This congregation is fortunate in that we have a Torah scroll commissioned by the great Jewish philanthropist Moses Montifiore that we will read from tomorrow.

While this commandment is about a physical Torah scroll, we also write the Torah of our lives. Every person’s life is a Torah, a sacred journey. Each of you has your own Torah to live and your own Torah to teach.

For the next 10 days, we will explore this central question. Where are you going?

Tonight I invite you to go on a journey. A journey of the soul.

Once when we were hiking in a provincial park in Canada on a stormy day, hikers coming down the mountain would nod and greet us with, Bonne Journee. At first I thought I hadn’t heard them correctly, that they were saying Bon Jour, good day. I started to think that a good day is a good journey.

That word journey is important. Rashi, the medieval Jewish French commentator was famous for explaining Biblical Hebrew by looking at the Old French. I will too.

Journey, comes from the French from the Latin is a day’s trip, however far you could get in a day. So in fact these words are very connected. Bon Jour. Bon Journee. A good day is a good journey.

There are lots of kinds of journeys. Physical, emotional, spiritual. There is the journey of the year and the journey of a lifetime.

A few years ago I stood here and talked about the book by Ron Wolfson, the Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven..

Five from the Talmud and two extra. A roadmap for our journey. These questions should not fill us with fear and trembling but help us to assess whether we are on the right path.

So here are the questions.

  1. Did you deal honestly with people in your business practices? Not just about business practices. All dealings with people should be honest. We’ll explore this one on Kol Nidre.
  2. Did you busy yourself with procreation?
    This one is not just about having children. What legacy are you leaving behind? What did you “give birth” to?
  3. Did you set aside time for Torah? All learning really. Don’t say, “I’ll study when I have time.” You may never have time.
  4. Did you hope for deliverance? This is really asking the question, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see the glass half-full or half-empty? And how is our cup overflowing? Edmund Flegg said that one of the reasons he is a Jew because instead of despair the Jew hopes.
  5. Did you seek wisdom – did you understand one thing from another? This is a hard one and takes some explaining. Did you learn from everything and then use that knowledge to set your priorities. It is about balance.
  6. Did you see my Alps? Did you see all the beauty that G-d created? Did you enjoy all the earthly pleasures that were permitted to you? G-d wants us to enjoy life. To love life and all that it has to offer.
  7. Were you the best you you could be? When Rabbi Zusia was on his deathbed, his students saw him crying. What’s the matter. He explained he was worried that G-d would ask not whether he was as good as Moses, but why he had not been as good as Zusia. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God doesn’t expect us to be another Moses or Einstein or Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. God wants you to be the best you.

That is a good list of questions. A good roadmap for our journey.

Since last Rosh Hashanah when we were gathered together, much has changed and much has stayed the same. Some of it in ways we don’t even know and couldn’t even imagine.

Each year is a journey. Each of us is on a different journey, a different path. For some of us this has been a hard year. We need to acknowledge that. Some battled serious illness. Others lost loved ones or friends. Others changed jobs or moved or got divorced. We witnessed major storms and wildfires, earthquakes and seismic shifts. It may seem that life kept throwing us curve balls. Change is never easy. But it is part of the journey.

The Kleins were no different. When we restarted the caring committee thanks to Karen and Al Bender, I had no idea that we might be the ones in need of it. We are fortunate, while Simon is still healing, his prognosis is one of the best possible outcomes. Hearing the words, “He is cancer free” should seem like a chance to celebrate. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People grew out of his very personal sermon the Yom Kippur after his son died. He spoke poignantly about another book, Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. For me, I am not quite yet to celebrate or to pontificate great theological truths. The events are too recent. Too raw. Sometimes I am just numb. Other times I am tired. And that’s my story. Simon has his own story—and he is much more private, much more thoughtful and meditative than I.

Nonetheless, I don’t believe that G-d caused Simon’s cancer any more than I believe that G-d caused Hurricane Harvey or Irma or Maria or the recent earthquakes in Mexico. After 911, at the memorial service for John Oganowski’s, the captain of Flight 11, Rev. Larry Zimmerman said that G-d wept. G-d cried with the people who suffered. G-d was with the people who rushed into the towers. G-d was with the people who stood on the streets of Manhattan handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to first responders. That’s true for the hurricanes, for the earthquakes and for everyone who faces scary times. G-d is with the helpers.

I am ready to say thank you—for all the prayers, cards, offers of help and for the space to allow us to heal as a family.

I can say a year like this begins to change my priorities on the journey. I am learning to live every day to its fullest, something I have always tried to do. To live with gusto and enthusiasm. To cherish our friends and family. To make each day count. To strive for balance. Because life is short. It really, really is.

Today, I need to add a new question, a different question that was not in Ron Wolfson’s book.

Do you dance?

I didn’t learn this question from a rabbi. Or from a Jewish book. I learned this question this summer when a good friend came into Chicago on her way to Milwaukee, to dance at a family wedding.

This is Nori’s story. Nori’s journey.

Some of you have met Nori, and or you know her name because we mention her as part of our weekly misheberach prayer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, the day the Cubs won the world series. Her prognosis is not like Simon’s.

She is a poet. A deep thinker. A caring, compassionate soul. A computer programmer. She worked with Simon at Wang. She worked on the 8th floor. He worked on the 7th. Rarely did people go from one floor to another. But together they were on a committee to improve corporate morale. They didn’t succeed in saving Wang. But they did spread joy and became fast friends. All of her friends become friends for life. She baked our wedding cake.

After Wang and Lotus and Progressive she became a professional baker. She has the best recipe for hamantaschen, sorry Nina, and it was published in Yankee Magazine.

Nori is one of my rabbis, my teachers and she is not even Jewish. She teaches enthusiasm. Passion. Truth. Now she is teaching us about dancing.

And how to live with cancer. She had plans to go to this wedding in Milwaukee so she flew in and out of Chicago to make sure to see us. And she danced at that wedding. She almost didn’t come because there was some unexpected internal bleeding. But her aunt had wanted to see the Great Wall of China and went even when she was ill. So Nori came. Either we live or we die. Might as well live fully and completely.

She had plans to go see the totality of the eclipse with her husband, a geeky computer guy and an amateur astronomer with a backyard observatory to rival the Phelans, but was in the hospital getting a blood transfusion so she made her husband wheel her out and everyone in that small town hospital in New Hampshire got to experience something of the eclipse.

After her parents died she wrote a series of poems to help her cope with her grief. They were published this year. She sat in my living room and read this one aloud.

One of her poems is entitled:

Do you dance?

Do you dance?
Do you dance at night?
Do you dance at night in a darkened room?
With the lights turned off and the shades pulled high
When the orange moon’s glimmer peers inside
Do glide like a shadow in a twilight land?

Do you dance?

Do you dance?
Do you dance barefoot?
Do you dance barefoot on a bare wood floor?
in a thin white shift, with your hair flying free
As your body whirls with your arms stretched wide
Does the icy floor melt beneath your heat?

Do you dance?

Do you dance?
Do you dance your grief?
Do you dance your grief, do you dance your rage?
Do you dance your joy, do you dance your love?
Do you dance the flame of a fire contained?
When the tender night heals the glare of day?

Do you dance your life?

Do you dance?
Nori Odoi

This is how Nori approaches everything. Dancing is a metaphor. It speaks to the deep engagement of all the senses, grasping at all life has to offer, living life to its fullest even if through grief and pain, with incredible hope and optimism and joy. It is the embodiment of all of Ron Wolfson’s questions, even for those of us who really can’t dance.

And since I don’t dance much, I wrote a poem to answer her question—as a birthday gift to Nori. But it is more important that you answer her question for yourself. It is part of the journey, our journey.

These are the questions that Rosh Hashanah demands. Where are you? Where are you going? Were you honest? What legacy did you leave? Did you set aside time for study? Did you hope? Did you seek wisdom? Did you see the beauty in the world and enjoy all that life has to offer? Were you the best you that you can be? And our new one…Do you dance?

Come journey with me. Come dance with me. Shanah tovah!

Joy in a Hurricane? Ki Tavo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then, is the role of prayer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Newman

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

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

Three prayers for a hurricane:

From Rabbi Fred Guttman

Avinu Shebashamyim:

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

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

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

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

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

From Rabbi Naomi Levy:

From Alden Solovny:

Finding Joy in Sight: Re’ah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Joy In Protest

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

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

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

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

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

What follows are my words at the rally:

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

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

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

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

I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; we are completing it.
I learned about Anne Frank who said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Take this pledge with us:

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

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

Thank you.

Finding Joy in Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few steps. Twenty minutes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosh Hodesh Av: No Joy This Year

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Here is the full list.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chazak v’ametz.

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