The Joy of Song: Shabbat Shirah

Sing unto G-d, sing a new song
O sing praises to G-d, give thanks to Him with a song…
Debbie Friedman quoting Psalms

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord
Girl Scout Camp, Psalm 100

Music speaks louder than words
It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to.
Music speaks louder than words,
When you sing, people understand.

Sometimes the love that you feel inside
Gets lost between your heart and your mind
And the words don’t really say the things you wanted them to.
But then you feel in someone’s song

What you’d been trying to say all along
And somehow with the magic of music the message comes through.
Peter Paul and Mary

I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company

All things shall perish from under the sky,
Music alone shall live
Music alone shall live
Music alone shall live, never to die.
Girl Scout Camp

Imagine that last world. A world without music. Music is powerful. It is evocative. It can capture our emotions better than words, as Peter, Paul and Mary sang.

And it is something we are commanded to do. To use music to praise G-d. It says so over and over again in the Psalms. Make a joyful noise to the Lord. It is good to praise G-d with song, with harp and lyre, drum and shofar cymbals sounding and resounding.

We are even told to “Sing a new song unto G-d “and in every generation and in every country we have done precisely that. Created new music that is meaningful to that generation, to that time and place to worship G-d. That’s what Debbie Friedman did. That’s what Solomni Rossi did. That’s what my professor, Sol Zim did. It is his Lador vador we typically sing. From generation to generation. That is precisely the initiative we have been undertaking at Congregation Kneseth Israel. Because music is a gateway. It is an entry point. It makes prayer more accessible. It increases our spirituality.

But melody adds not only to the beauty of our services and prayers but also our ability to understand the words.

As has been done for thousands of years, at CKI we chant Torah. The Talmud teaches that “If one reads [Torah] without chant or studies [Mishnah] without melody, of him is it written, ‘I gave them laws that were not good’ (Ezekiel 20:25).” (Megilah 32). There are different cantillation systems for different books—for instance Torah and Haftarah sound different. So do Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations. And we chant the High Holiday portions in a different trope or ta’am. In even modern day yeshivot, learning is still done in a singsong voice.

Why bother? Because it is a way to help us understand. It becomes the punctuation marks. You already know how to do this. Look at V’ahavta. Better yet, sing it. That’s Torah trope!

Cantillation is also a tool to aid memory. Remember those bards, wandering storytellers, chanted their songs. Think about Homer and the Odyssey or Beowulf, or the Canterbury Tales all of which were chanted so they could be remembered.

Nusach, are the traditional tunes, or modes that we sing the service with. Shabbat nusach is upbeat, in a major key, a taste, maybe the sound, of the world to come.

High Holiday Nusach is designed to create the atmosphere of a coronation of the King. It is like a royal march.

Weekday nusach not as flowery. It is bare bones, a single note, because people are more rushed in their workday world.

These become the auditory clues to the mood and the tone of the service.

In rabbinical school we were required to take a series of classes called Tefilah and Seminar. One year, that class addressed how to lead a shivah minyan. There was a big debate about whether to use weekday nusach or Shabbat morning which more people would know. One my way home I stopped to pay a shiva call to a classmate in CT. I figured I would just say hi and be on my way. But the rabbi hadn’t shown up and my classmate said, “You’ll lead the minyan” as she thrust a siddur into my hand I had never seen. In came another classmate, ordained the previous year. I said, “Great, Danny, you’re here. You’ll lead.” He declined saying he had a cold. But he stood next to me and whispered to me, not having been in that class earlier, “So what nusach will you use.” I answered, “What ever comes out of my mouth.”

Maybe you are still thinking, why bother? I can’t master all of this. It is confusing. I don’t care.

Judaism has something for you, too. A niggun is a song without words. Introduced by the Chasidim, they transport us to a deeper level, allows us to pray without worrying about words, Hebrew, etc. Another way to enter prayer. We have some very talented musicians and composers here. Stewart Levin, our choir director and house band leader has written his own niggun. So has Gareth Sitz.

One Chasidic master, R. Dov Baer said, in describing niggunim, “The ecstasy produced by melody … is in the category of spontaneous ecstasy alone, without any choice or intellectual will whatsoever.” That’s because, as he said, “words can become idols. They concretize that which cannot be concretized. Ideas can intellectualize experience. Melody is pure soul.”

So why today? Because today, shortly, we are going to read, actually sing, the Song at the Sea. This Shabbat becomes known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. This is the Shabbat we are commanded to feed the birds. Because they bring us song. Part of the Song of the Sea you recognize, we sing it at every service. Mi Chamocha. Who is like You. And there are hundreds of settings of it. Possibly every one in this room has their favorite.

Think about the setting. The Israelites have just crossed the sea. They are finally free. How would you feel? Relieved? Joyous? Tired? Anxious? You might think, “Wow!” Or maybe as our Hebrew School kids said, “That was cool!” “That was amazing!” “That was awesome.” “Do it again!” “How did You do that?” “What just happened here?” “What happened to the Egyptians?” “We are safe now.” “We are free.” “Thank you G-d.” “Hallelujah.” One girl said she would have fainted. They got the awesomeness of this moment. Just like Moses when he first sang Mi Chamocha. And that is what real prayer is–the prompting our hearts to what is going on around us.

And our text proclaims, “Ze Eli! This is my G-d!” They said. Together as one. An entry point into spirituality. One each of us needs to find for ourselves. Today. Not just historically. So that when we sing, “Ze Eli,” we mean it for ourselves. Each of us individually.

Moses wasn’t the only one who sang. Miriam took a tof, a timbrel, a tambourine, a drum in her hand and led the women in song.

I learned this week that in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the Qumran text there is an addition to the Biblical text. Preserved in the feminine imperative are half the lines of Miriam’s song. It was thrilling to learn about this and the link between this song and other women’s songs, such as Deborah’s song, which we will also read this morning, Hannah’s prayer, and Judith’s. These pieces of poetry, song are amongst the oldest in scripture.

And for me as a woman rabbi, it makes modern day arguments about why women’s voices in prayer are not kosher, less and less valid. Women have always prayed. Women have always sung. Women will continue to do so.

The Lubbevitcher Rebbe taught this:
“We don’t sing when we are frightened, despairing, sleepy, or after a heavy meal. We sing when we are pining after one whom we love, when we are yearning for better times, when we are celebrating an achievement or anticipating a revelation. We don’t sing when we are complacent. We sing when we are striving for something, or when we have tasted joy and are climbing it to the heavens. Song is prayer, the endeavor to rise above the petty cares of life and cleave to one’s source. Song is the quest for redemption.”

Let us sing and rejoice. Let’s go sing this special portion together.

The Joy of Welcoming the Stranger Part Two

In December I gave a sermon entitled, The Joy of Welcoming the Stranger.

Today I got an email from one of my congregants urging me to take a position on the Muslim travel ban. I told him I already had. Which is true. I have signed every petition. I have encouraged those who are able to join the airport protests. I have joined with other rabbis to decry this ban. And I preach about the topic frequently.

But here is my more complete statement. It is simple. 36 times it says in the Torah to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger. It even says that we need to love the stranger. 36 times. It only tells us twice not to eat pork. So if you want me to live out my Jewish values, I need to love the stranger. Period. It is that simple.

Not relevant to 2017? The security issues are too big? The security risk is actually bigger if we allow the ban. And I say this having worked in competitive and military intelligence before becoming a rabbi.

I live in two civilizations (thank you Mordechai Kaplan). The Jewish one and the American one. The Jewish one is clear. Very clear. The American dream is at risk here. My ancestors were immigrants. Most in the 1840s. In 1971 I got up early and thrilled to see the Statue of Liberty after a long summer in Europe and a transAtlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth II. I have taken countless classes to see Ellis Island and the Lower East Side.

We are a nation of immigrants. 9/11 happened when I was an intern at Refugee Immigration Ministry. At that first Friday staff meeting, there were tears when case managers reported the fear our clients were feeling. Having run from their countries and seeking asylum here, they wondered, where could they flee to next? Where would they be safe?

In the summer of 2006 I was in Germany (ironic, huh?) for a team building week at SAP. It was the same week as the World Cup soccer finals. I learned that every one on my extended team had significant foreign experience. People had lived in another country, gone to school in another country, worked in another country. My team had people from the US, Germany, France, Israel, Jordan, India. It was a bright, enthusiastic group. There was a funny moment when the Orthodox Jew and the Jordanian, a Muslim, came to me to see what they could eat at lunch. The answer–not much except the beer. Almost everything was pork based. The Jordanian was routinely stopped at customs because his name matched someone else on the no fly list. The head of the team, my boss, a German citizen, on an H1B visa and living with his family in Pennsylvania was routinely stopped and fingerprinted going through US customs. The Indians were stopped just because they were dark-skinned (so they believed). My team would not have been as rich without any one of them, We could not have done our work. And that is precisely what Google, Apple, Harvard, the University of Michigan and many other companies have said.

The world is a scary place right now. It was scary in 1972 when the Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. It was scary when my first finance was murdered by a terrorist bomb in Lebanon in 1983 (today is his yahrzeit). It was scary after 9/11. It was scary when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. It was scary when I decided and then AJWS echoed that decision, not to travel to Kenya. It was scary when terrorism struck Paris more than once. And Belgium. And Nice.  And Germany. And Turkey. And San Bernadino and Orlando. Too many to count. All of them are tragic.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tsar me’od. V’ha’ikar lo lefachad klal. All the world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is to not be afraid.” Fear is a powerful and dangerous emotion. We cannot afford to be afraid.

Every single major Jewish organization that I can think of has decried the ban. I don’t know how much clearer or stronger I can be. It is what we are called on to do, as Jews and Americans.

I serve a congregation that lists “Embracing diversity” as one of four planks in its vision statement. The congregation has 17 people born in foreign countries. Those countries include: Japan, China, Mongolia, Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Canada, England, France, Germany, Poland, Israel. Our congregation has been enriched by their presence.

Love the stranger. Lift the ban.

The Joy of Standing Up.

I don’t usually write two posts on a Monday. But this is too important not to.

Here is the expanded text of what I said on Shabbat afternoon at the Elgin Standing Together March and Rally.

I didn’t plan to speak today. And in fact, I have no written notes. Yet rabbis all over the country are speaking today. From them I draw courage.

My mother said to never talk about religion and politics in public (the line I forgot I was going to say). As a rabbi I find I do so all the time. Religion is politics. But not partisan. It always has been.

The text that we Jews read this morning is the beginning of the book of Exodus. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said when he marched with King that his feet were praying. I talked about that last week from this very podium. About the beginning of Exodus, he said, that it is the first conference on Race and Religion. He is right. And it is more than that. It calls us to remember our history, that we, each of us, were once strangers in a strange land. It calls us to remember our names. It calls us to the best the we can be—precisely because we know what it means to be the other, to be marginalized.

The mayor just read the Bill of Rights. That is our country’s sacred document. George Washington said to the Jews of Newport, RI, “To bigotry no sanction; to persecution, no assistance.” Today’s Torah portion says, “A new king arose, who knew not Joseph.” (laughter). Wait. I didn’t write the text. It is jut the text I was given for this very weekend. One might wonder what would have happened if Pharaoh had remembered how Joseph had rescued the Egyptians from famine and had not been afraid of the other, the stranger living in Egypt.

But that’s not the story I want to tell. I want to talk about two women, whose names are recorded later in this very chapter. Shifrah and Puah. They were the midwives. They helped give birth to the Israelite boys, defying the Pharaoh’s order. They gave birth to the Israelite people. They birthed a nation. They are, in fact, why we can be here today. We stand on their shoulders. They stood and up and were counted, just as we are doing today, for what was right, what was proper, what was necessary. They refused to give in or give up even when life seemed hopeless and filled with despair. They answered the call. They responded Hinini, here am I. So try it with me. Hinini, here am I. That’s today’s text.

(The paragraph that was in my head that I didn’t use!)

There is another text coming soon. You know the story. There is another woman, another strong woman, who I think about a lot. Esther. Hadassah in Hebrew. She became the queen to King Ahashurarus. Then the King decided, with the help of his advisors, he was going to kill all the Jews. Esther’s uncle, Mordechai, went to the palace in sack cloth and ashes. He fasted. He urged Esther to go to the king. She didn’t want to. She was afraid she herself would be killed. He urged her further, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance… will arise from another place. And who knows but that you have come into your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther found her voice. Each of us sitting here today have found ours. I have found mine (again)

Today, we stand up and are counted. Like Shifrah, Like Puah, Like Esther. Today, we stand here and say, Hinini. We are here. Fully present and ready.

(Expanded paragraph of what I said)

And yes, the rumors are true. I had a little something to do with the proclamation the mayor just read, and first read at City Council just last week. It was based on a conversation that he and I and my physician had at a Christmas party last month. It codifies what the city already does. What federal law already says, that we will not discriminate in hiring. On its website, the city states that, “The City of Elgin is an Equal Opportunity/Reasonable Accommodation Employer. Applicants are considered solely on the basis of their qualifications as required for the position they seek, and no discrimination is exercised because of their political or religious opinions or affiliations, or because of their race, religion, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, veteran status or marital status.” That’s what we are standing up for.

This puts Elgin in compliance with state and federal law. But the commitment is bigger than that, as you can see today. It is in Elgin sponsoring this very event. It is in the framed poster in HR that proudly proclaims, “Celebrate Elgin’s Diversity. Everyone’s at home here.” It’s in u46’s mission statement, All means all.”

After City Council, the mayor handed me the proclamation. For a week, it has lived on my dining room table. But mayor, it doesn’t belong hidden in my office at the synagogue or at home. It belongs in your office, where everyone can see it. So I am handing it back to you!

(Not in my speech)
I am proud of the role I played today. I am proud to have found my voice. To stand up again for the women, the children, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the most marginalized amongst us. That is why I am here today. I stand up because as Edmund Flegg, a 19th Century French Jew, 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.

Today, despite my own fears and my own despair, I hope.

I spoke today as Shifrah and Puah and Esther, as my grandmother, Marguerite and mother, Nelle, did, as my own daughter has begun to do.

I speak up in the names of all those marginalized who cannot speak for themselves.

I stand up for women’s rights which are human rights.

I stand up for our environment, to be caretakers of this glorious creation.

I stand up for health care. For day care. For elder care.

I stand up for safety and security. For our police and fire.

I stand up for public education.

I stand up for the homeless, for the hungry, for the unemployed and the underemployed.

I stand up for my mother and for my daughter and for my husband. For all of my family. For all of your families.

I stand up. Hinini. Here am I.

The Joy of a Name: Sh’mot

“My name is important, my name is important, my name is important….” Those were the words in a radio show that my Confirmation Class did in 1977 about the Last American Jew. I haven’t forgotten.

Today’s Torah portion begins with the words Eleh sh’mot…These are the names. It is a record of the Israelites who came down to Egypt.

It is all about names.

It happened again this week. I was at a meeting of Jewish professionals with a name badge on and someone said. “Margaret. That;s not a very Jewish name. Are you sure, you are Jewish?” The answer to that is yes. In most families, names are chosen very, very carefully. I was named after my grandmother Marguerite, my other grandmother Marian and my mother’s best friend Joy. It is quite a legacy to live up to.


Why are names important?

Rabbi Irwin Huberman reminds us that there is a Kabbalistic teaching that there is a power in our Hebrew names. The Hebrew word for name is Shem, the plural is Sh’mot. One of the words for soul or spirit is NeShama. Our tradition teaches us that when we name a child, that part of the Neshama of the person being named for, grounds the child through its shem, its name.

In some families a Hebrew name is never given. I wasn’t given one until my Bat Mitzvah. My mother was never given one as a child. Neither was Simon’s mother. Some families gave boys Hebrew names and girls Yiddish names. Some families only gave English names, wanting to make sure that all that America has to offer was accessible to their children. Abraham might be Abe. Sarah could be Susan. Aaron, Arnold, Moses was Morris. David became Donald. Look around this room. We have Leonard, Myron, Charles, Helen, Manfred, Lee, Lizzi, Renee. Not a :Biblical name in the bunch. It was a way to make sure our children were accepted, included, able to succeed in business.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to help a family give Hebrew names to their now adult children.

I had reached out to some rabbinic colleagues before this brief naming ceremony. We are used to naming our boys on the 8rh day at a bris, and I am delighted I have a bris to attend tomorrow. We have invented simchat habrit or simcha bat ceremonies to welcome with joy a girl into the covenant as well. They are still so new in the Jewish tradition, we don’t even have a consistent name for them! They may happen on the 8th day to be parallel or on the first Shabbat at a Torah service or on the 30th day or at some other time that is more convenient for the new mother. My own daughter had two, a private one at home on the 8th day and a more public one in the synagogue at the 30 day mark.

We named her Sarah Elisheva in Hebrew, Sarah Elizabeth in English, after my grandfather Stephen. Another of those highly Anglicized names. In fact, if she had been a boy she might have been Zachary but my mother thought that was too Hebrew. So we had settled on Samuel Adams, after the Boston patriot, not the beer, since Adams is a family name. At some point, we made a parenting mistake and told Sarah that her name means princess in Hebrew. Last week she got to meet a real Princess Sarah, the keynote speaker at Martin Luther King weekend. But that is a story for another time.

So I asked my colleagues, what do we do if there isn’t a Hebrew name by the time the child is an adult. Often the rabbi meets the family in his or her study, they discuss options and the name is conferred. It’s all business. It seemed we needed a ceremony. A new ritual. Some way to mark this liminal time.

I brought the family into the sanctuary. We sat on the bimah. In the royal looking chairs. Leaving one for Elijah—just like you do for a bris or a baby naming. Because every child might just be the Messiah that Elijah might just herald. We said a couple of prayers. We read the verse from Pirke Avot, “Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns–the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.” (Pirke Avot 4:17) The two young adults explained the names they had chosen. We lit candles because they may bring light into this darkened world. They may be the ones who gather the sparks together and repair this world. We sipped some wine, reciting Kiddush to make this holy time and space and said the Shehechianu for preserving us to reach this day.

The man, just back from a birthright trip, chose Moshe, Moses. He had been discovering his Jewish roots and felt connected to Moses who also did not know the full extent of his Jewishness under he was an adult. It was a perfect choice for someone growing into his Jewish identity. There were tears from the father as he spoke. There were tears from this rabbi. It was a perfect moment.

Some of this is about memory. Some of this is about legacy. That’s important in this story too. Today’s portion says that “A New King arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” We are exerted to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Over and over again we are told to love the stranger among us because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. That hasn’t changed. That is still my prime focus—taking care of the widow, the orphan , the stranger, the most marginalized amongst us.

As Rabbi Huberman said, “Over the generations, rabbis have asked how the Jewish people survived under Egyptian slavery. How is it possible, they wondered, that, under the Egyptians’ whip, under such pressure to conform and shed their beliefs, the Israelites managed to persevere? The Midrash, our collection of stories and legends, credits four reasons with our survival. Rabbi Huna, in the name of Bar Kapparah, states: “We maintained our language; we didn’t engage in widespread gossip; we did not engage in immoral behavior; and we did not change our names.”

This focus on names and memory continues in the portion. In this portion there are some strong women whose names we learn and remember. Yocheved. Moses’s mother. Who has the courage to keep Moses at home. Miriam, his sister, who has the courage to follow Moses in the basket and find a nursemaid for Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter, whose name Batya we learn in the midrash, who had the courage to rescue Moses from the water and raise him as her own. Zipporah, Moses’s wife who has the courage to circumcise Gershom, preserving the legacy of the covenant.

And Shifrah and Puah. The midwives who had the courage to defy Pharaoh’s orders. Who continued to deliver Israelite boys and not throw them into the river. They are the real heroes.

When Moses flees Egypt after murdering an overseer, he is in Midian. The daughters of Jethro, the Midianite priest, recognize him as an Egyptian prince. This confusion about names and identity continues here. Jethro isn’t even called Jethro here. He is called Reuel. In the next chapter he is called Jethro!

Moses tries to blend in as a Midianite. He is shepherding the sheep on Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai and he sees something unusual—a bush that is burning and not consumed. He approaches to get a closer look. He asks two questions—Who am I? an existential question if ever there were one. He seems to not know if he is an Israelite, an Egyptian, a Midianite. And Who are You? G-d answers Eheyeh asher Eheyeh, hard to translate, something like “I am that I am”, or maybe better “I will be what I will be.”

And Moses realizes he is standing on holy ground. He takes off his shoes. He answers, Hinini, I am here. I am fully present. I will be fully here. That is what each of us is called to do. To answer Hinini. To recognize our name when we are called and to recognize that we are standing on holy ground.

When is he answering, he is like the young man I helped pick that name. He is embracing his Jewish identity. He is standing up for the strangers amongst us.

Rabbi Lord Sacks says it better. “So when Moses asks, “Who am I?” it is not just that he feels himself unworthy. He feels himself uninvolved. He may have been Jewish by birth, but he had not suffered the fate of his people. He had not grown up as a Jew. He had not lived among Jews. He had good reason to doubt that the Israelites would even recognise him as one of them. How, then, could he become their leader? More penetratingly, why should he even think of becoming their leader? Their fate was not his. He was not part of it. He was not responsible for it. He did not suffer from it. He was not implicated in it.

What is more, the one time he had actually tried to intervene in their affairs – he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who had killed an Israelite slave, and the next day tried to stop two Israelites from fighting one another – his intervention was not welcomed. “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” they said to him. These are the first recorded words of an Israelite to Moses. He had not yet dreamed of being a leader and already his leadership was being challenged.”

Sacks continues: Maimonides, who defines this as “separating yourself from the community” (poresh mi-darkhei ha-tsibbur, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:11), says that it is one of the sins for which you are denied a share in the world to come. This is what the Hagaddah means when it says of the wicked son that “because he excludes himself from the collective, he denies a fundamental principle of faith.” What fundamental principle of faith? Faith in the collective fate and destiny of the Jewish people. Who am I? asked Moses, but in his heart he knew the answer. I am not Moses the Egyptian or Moses the Midianite. When I see my people suffer I am, and cannot be other than, Moses the Jew. And if that imposes responsibilities on me, then I must shoulder them. For I am who I am because my people are who they are.”

I used this very verse this week when I went to the executive committee. “Do not separate yourself from the community.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) Each gave their own definition of community. Friendship. Support. Prayer. Belonging. Nurturing. Similar beliefs. Each of them has answered, “Hinini.”

Later today I will be at the march in solidarity with women all over the world. In fact, I have been quietly helping to organize it. In fact, ours in Elgin is starting at 2 because they wanted to make sure that I and others from the Jewish community could participate without violating Shabbat observance. That group of women is a community too. Elgin is a community. Elgin Standing Together exemplifies this portion of remembering the names, the legacy and the history of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Joseph, Moses, Yocheved, Miriam, Shifrah and Puah, Zipporarh, Marguerite and Marian and Joy. Nelle and Don. My name stands on their memory. I stand on their shoulders.

Moses stood up and was counted. That standing up, that recognizing that others are marginalized is why he received the crown of a good name.

The Joy of Prayer: An Invocation for Martin Luther King Weekend

Long before I was nominated for the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award. Long before it was announced I had won, I was asked to give the invocation at the Sunday afternoon public program that is aimed at Elgin’s school children. A mix of singing and dance, inspiring speakers and the awarding of scholarships, it is always one of my favorite events of the year. It is part of why I became a member of the Martin Luther King Celebration Committee. To organize events such as this.

Jews have been praying for the welfare of our government since Jeremiah’s day.  Praying in that venue requires some creativity. A “free form” prayer as my husband calls it. There isn’t a Jewish prayer that is written specifically for Martin Luther King Day and included in our usual prayer books, although Jews have written such prayers, and some are available online. I couldn’t find one that fit my mood, my “kavanah”, intention.

So I sat down to write my own prayer. I can hear what came out in the deep, resonant voice of Martin Luther King and the poetry of Maya Angelou. Here is what I prayed:

O Merciful One,
You have taught us through your prophet Micah what you demand of us:
To do justly
To love mercy
And to walk humbly with You.

We are trying.
We are trying to walk.
We are trying so very, very hard.

Baby steps.
One foot in front of the other.

We have been walking and walking and walking
Walking with our minds set on freedom.
Walking with our feet praying
Walking and now our feet are sore.

Lord, we are tired.
We know You demand of us
Justice and Mercy.

It seems so simple.
It should be easy.
It is not.

Lord, we cannot walk alone
We do not walk alone.
We walk with You.

As we walk, we pledge that we shall march ahead.

Long ago
You promised us that you would go with us.
That You would lighten our burden.
That You would give us rest.

Lighten our burden now.
Give us rest now.
Strengthen us now
For the journey ahead.

Remember that we are your people.
All of Your people.
Created in Your image.

Remind us
Of Your vision
Of a world redeemed
Of a world filled with light.

Where we love our neighbors as ourselves
Where black children and white children
Latinos and Asians can learn together.
Where all of G-d’s children
Jews and Gentiles
Protestants and Catholics
Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus
Believers and non-believers

Will be able to join hands
And worship in peace

Where swords will be beaten into plowshares
Then plowshares into musical instruments
Where everyone can sit under their vine
And under their strong Illinois oak tree
Where no one can make them afraid.

Where we find the strength
Where we find the courage.
To continue.

To work for Your vision.
To work for King’s dream.
To work for that day.

Help us to find our voice.
Help us to do Your will
To do justice
To love mercy
And to walk, so very, very humbly with You
As we do Your service.


The Joy of A Dream: Martin Luther King Weekend, Part 1

This weekend is a remarkable weekend in Elgin. It is Martin Luther King Weekend, not just a day. For several years I have served on the Martin Luther King Commission, a sub-committee of the City of Elgin’s Human Relations Commission. For me, it just makes sense. This year, earlier today, I was honored with the annual Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award. I was shocked to be nominated, even more humbled to win. My fellow nominees are both close friends and partners in the work that we do. I even suggested that they give the award to the three of us.

Words do not capture the range of emotions I felt this morning. I was awed. I was humbled. Grateful. Happy. Teary. I missed other people with whom I have done this work. I was appreciative of all those who have worked so hard to make Elgin a better place. It brings me hope. Even in these times.

None of the work I do, I do alone. When I left the Elgin Community College, I was walking alone. It reminded me of a long walk back up the hill at the Academy of Jewish Religion after ordination. Again alone. Both profound. Today I found myself singing Ozi V’zimrat Yah. G-d is my help and my salvation. G-d is my partner too. I was not alone.

Here are my “acceptance remarks”:

Thank you. Martin Luther King spoke frequently of his dream in the words of the prophets. Like Micah: “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your G0d.” My mother’s favorite verse. The ethic that I was raised with. Today, I am very, very humble.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin, I do not do alone. My fellow nominees and I together worked on multiple programs together. Every time I turned around there were Danielle and Tony, leading the charge. In the last year alone, contentious school board meetings on racism, Courageous Conversations with the police and the community, the Not in Our Town film series, the Orlando Vigil, the Unity March, I-Fest and even transgender bathrooms. In the process, the three of us became friends. It is about building community. I accept this award on behalf of all three of us and the ongoing work each of us will do in the days ahead.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin, I do with the blessing of my community, Congregation Kneseth Israel. I told them when I first arrived, 2nd Baptist come and sing but that alone was not enough. It smacks of tokenism. So we expanded what we do in the community. I accept this award on behalf of Congregation Kneseth Israel.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin reflects the work that I do with my husband and my daughter who are here today. They come from a long line of two families who have worked for justice wherever we have lived. It is how we live our Jewish values. They walk the walk—sometimes quite literally. Selma. Orlando. Walk for Hunger. Habitat for Humanity. Races for causes. The Unity March.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin goes back to the sixties in Evanston. When the swings weren’t up in the neighborhood park, my mother ran for park commissioner. She was told “Those people might sit on them.” And my father, whose yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, is this weekend, taught “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as an example of a persuasive essay. Every year the whole family would reread it. It still resonates as I reread it this week. You all should. I accept this award on behalf of my family, past and present.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin goes all the way back to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream, speech, that one day Jew and Gentile will be able to hold hands and pray together, a line that as the Jew I was given to read at every year. It is still my dream.

Martin Luther King had a dream, a vision. That dream is not yet complete, we are completing it. Because make no mistake; there is still hard work to be done to realize that dream. This week, we note with sadness 16 bomb threats against Jewish community centers nationwide and a proposed march in Whitefish, Montana that has now been postponed tomorrow but scheduled deliberately on King’s birthday. Like the documentary, “Not in our town,” people thought it couldn’t happen there. People think it can’t happen here. It could. If we don’t stand together. But in Elgin we do stand together.

The work that I do for justice in Elgin meant that this summer when there was a Nazi flag at the Kane County Flea Market, I had a network of friends, some of you sitting in this room, people who had already stood together, that I could call on. Remarkably, during 4th of July Weekend, the very weekend we mourned the passing of Elie Wiesel, that flag, was removed in just 6 hours. That’s building community. Those groups—the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders, the Elgin Police Department, City Council and, the Human Relations Commission, continue to stand together. We must.

The work that I do in Elgin reflects the work that I have done nationally. In Lowell, when we founded the Merrimack Valley Project, similar to the Fox River Initiative, and where I got my first training in Community Organizing. With the Religious Action Center and Rallies to Save Soviet Jews and to Save Darfur. As a global justice rabbinic fellow with American Jewish World Service. As a member of Tru’ah, Rabbis for Human Rights, I heeded their call to go to Ferguson as a silent clergy witness. Before I went I called Chief Swoboda. I wanted his blessing. Because I believe that we have a better model of policing here in Elgin.

A rabbi is a teacher. So I will teach you a little Torah. Then, unfortunately, I will leave. I think you will understand, precisely because this is a prayer breakfast. While I am deeply humbled, my primary responsibility is to lead my congregation in prayer and our main service of the week starts shortly. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with King said that he felt his feet were praying, My feet have been praying with all of you this morning.

He also said,” Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” I pray that our will is strengthened here today.

Once a Hasidic rabbi was asked what he did before he prayed (in these stories it is always a he) and he answered, he prayed for an hour that he might be able to pray. This morning’s breakfast is a part of my preparation to pray further. To learn further. To walk further.

This week’s Torah portion is the last portion in the Book of Genesis. Jacob, having tricked Esau out of his blessing and his inheritance, now is called on to bless all of his children. (At least the boys) What Jacob learned and what we must learn is that there is enough blessing to go around. Like the U-46 mission statement. All means all. All of us, black or white, Jew or Gentile, gay or straight, were created in the Divine image. All of us are loved. That is the message of this week’s Torah portion. That is the message of Martin Luther King, Then after Shabbat is over, we can begin again to work towards Martin Luther King’s vision, to fulfill his incomplete dream.

Next week we begin to read the Book of Exodus. Moses emerges as a leader, after he tries to say send someone else. After seeing the burning bush and taking off his shoes, he realizes he is standing on holy ground. He answers the call. Hinini. Here am I. Each of us is Moses. Each of us must answer that call. This ground in Elgin is holy ground. A place that embraces its diversity. That fights to protect all of our rights.. I am proud to be here in Elgin to answer the call. Proud and very, very humble. Thank you.

The Joy of Welcoming the Stranger

And Jacob went forth. Yayztei. That’s the same verb root as Hamotzi, who brings forth bread from the earth, or yatza, to go forth, exit, from which we get the phrase for the Exodus from Egyp, yitziat mitzrayim.

Now Jacob was a dreamer. He had a rock for a pillow. I don’t know about you, in all those years of Girl Scout camping, I always wound up with a rock for a pillow. Usually that meant that I didn’t sleep, let alone dream. Never would make it to REM sleep on those camping trips!

Let’s look at this dream. It was a ladder, reaching up to the sky, the heavens

A ladder with malachim, angels, messengers, going up and down.

When he wakes up he says, “God was in this place. And I did not know it.” And he calls that place, that Makom, Beit El, House of G-d.” Makom, Place becomes another name for G-d. And we learn from this what psychology has taught more recently that there is a deep connection between dreams and spirituality.

What about that dream of a ladder? I think it is about how we want to live, in a place with G-d. In a place with hope. In a place that is just and fair. Those messengers are going up and down. They are bi-directional. They remind me of the verse from Deuteronomy 30: “For this commandment which I command you today, it is not too hard for you. Neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you shall say, ‘Who shall go up for us towards the heavens and bring it to us and make us hear it so that we will do it. Nor is it across the sea so that you would say, ‘Who shall across the sea for us and bring it to us and make us hear it so that we will do it?’

Maimonides uses the metaphor of a ladder to describe higher and higher levels of giving tzedakah. We know this text, but it bears repeating in this context, of a dream of a society where everyone has enough, because it is the right thing, the just thing, the tzedek thing to do.

Rung 1: If one gives unwillingly.

Rung 2: If one gives inadequately but one gives gladly and with a smile.

Rung 3: Climbing higher. If one gives to the poor after being asked.

Rung 4: Halfway there. One gives to the poor directly into their hands and before being asked.

Rung 5: One does not know to whom you give and the poor do not know who gives to them. The sages used to tie coins into their robes and then throw the coins behind their backs so they would not see who collected the tzedakah and the poor would not be ashamed. When we write our end of the year checks, or perhaps you participated in Giving Tuesday, most of us are probably at this rung of the ladder.

Rung 6: Higher still. One knows to whom one gives but the recipient doesn’t know who gave. That’s like the coat someone gave to me to give to certain congregant whose coat is a little threadbare. The sages used to put coins in the doors of the poor in secret.

Rung 7: One gives to the poor without knowing to whom one gives and without the recipient knowing who gave. This is, as Rambam said, a mitzvah solely for the sake of heaven. You get no reward for this. Anonymous giving is one of the hallmarks of Judaism. In the Temple in Jerusalem there was an anonymous fund to distribute food from the offerings to the poorest among us. The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, in part, fills a similar function in many congregations including this one.

Rung 8: The highest level is to help someone become self-sufficient. It could be a gift or a loan, entering into a partnership with them or finding employment. That way the person will no longer be dependent on others. This is the old, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

That last rung of this ladder is important. Particularly today. Particularly when too many people don’t want to mentor others, or lend a helping hand, or reach back down the ladder. But that is precisely what Judaism teaches. Over and over and over again.

Today is Human Rights Shabbat. As we have done every year I have been here, we are joining with 70 Jewish congregations to mark this occasion. One year we explored Fair Trade Coffee and Chocolate. I think we would agree that was a yummy year. And I am proud that we now only serve Fair Trade Coffee here at CKI.

One year we talked about the Immokalee Tomato Workers in Florida and why they are demanding a penny a pound more for tomatoes they pick. I now include a tomato on my seder plate every year. One year we added special prayers for the dignity of all. Last year we compared the Human Rights Declaration with verses from the Talmud.

My first question this morning, then, is what is a right? In the US, we talk about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights. The right to freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Freedom to assemble. Freedom to bear arms. We talk about civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. In other countries, there might be other rights, like the guarantee of health care.

Judaism has much to say about rights. And with rights come responsibilities. Today I just want to talk about one area.

36 times in Torah it says we should take care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It is a dream of the way the world should be. It is a vision of the world yet to be. And so it is appropriate for this portion with the dream of the messengers ascending and descending the ladder. I believe that this is the message that they were trying to bring to Jacob. And it is something that Jacob did not achieve and something the world has still not achieved. It remains a vision, a dream.

I use this phrase a lot. 36 times in the Torah it says to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The most marginalized among us, as I usually add. You have all heard me say it. It is about their rights. These are fundamental rights to food and housing. But this year I was brought up short. When I used this line at the State House in my invocation, one of our state representatives asked if I had the list of the 36 places, because then he would use it too.


I have not found the list. Apparently no one has the exact formulation. But with help from Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson and Lord Rabbi Sacks I found the original reference. It appears in the Talmud:

It has been taught: R. Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against the wronging of a stranger in thirty-six or as others say, in forty-six places? Because he has a strong inclination to evil. (Bava Metzia 59b)

This is Judaism. So there you have it. Either 36 times or 46 places. Already we have an argument. But it is a 2000 year old argument! I love the idea that it appears 36 times. Our tradition tells us that number represents double chai, double life, 2×18. What is not clear from the grammar is who has the strong inclination to evil. The stranger, convert, proselyte who may “relapse” as some commentators said. Or perhaps the Israelites who have a strong inclination to mistreat the stranger and so it needs to be repeated over and over again.

So I figured it was time to document it. Could I find all the references that Rabbi Eliezer said are there?

Why? What really interests me is the repetition. We know there are no extra words in the Torah. We know that the prohibition against pork only appears twice. Why does the Bible repeat this so many times? It must be really important. Precisely because it is so difficult to do and it seems to go against our natural inclination.

What is a ger? It means a sojourner, an alien, a stranger. It has come to mean convert, someone who has chosen Judaism. Frequently it appears as “ger toshav”, a resident alien, someone who has chosen to live amongst us.

A concordance is a useful Biblical tool to track down Biblical references. The gold standard is Strong’s Concordance, in which he identifies 92 occurrences of “ger” and its derivatives. Not all of those are about treating the ger fairly. Some are just occurances of the word, not commandments.

Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon, another critical tool in Biblical scholarship, seems to come to the same conclusions as Strong.

We get some early hints at why welcoming the stranger is so important. Abraham was a ger toshav. That’s what he calls himself when he buys a cave to bury Sarah. And the elders of the community treat him kindly when they sell him the choicest of burial caves. He and Sarah were known for their hospitality. They rushed to welcome the three visitors to their tent which was open on all four sides so they could see guests approaching from any direction. Gershom, Moses’s son, as his very name implies was a ger. The Haggadah reminds us that our ancestors were wandering Arameans.

The reason is often given that we have to take care of the stranger is precisely because we were once strangers in Egypt.


“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Exodus 22:20

So that’s the reason for this. We know what it is like to be the stranger. To be the other. And it is not easy. That is why we are told over and over again to treat the stranger with respect. To welcome the stranger. To love the stranger. Why there needs to be one law that applies to citizen and stranger alike.

“You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.” I just studied that this week with a Bat Mitzvah student whose portion says that a ger can celebrate Passover but must have the same rules for how to do it. Interesting portion for a kid in an interfaith family.

And since there is one law for citizen and stranger alike, refugees are entitled to sanctuary cities, places they can flee to safely, even if they have committed a crime as heinous as murder. Something to think about deeply as the call for sanctuary cities in this country grows.

In the very center of the Torah, in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, we learn that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Love. It is hard to command an emotion. Impossible some say. So the Torah gives us really practical ways to show our love to our neighbors and even to the strangers.

They must be included in the “positive welfare provisions of Israelite society.” For example, we cannot glean to the corners of our field or pick up the fallen fruit. We must leave them for the widow and the stranger. We see this in action in the Book of Ruth when Ruth, the stranger, goes to glean in Boaz’s field. This commandment is also repeated in Deuteronomy.

These laws commanding us to take care of the stranger is the basis for Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” So study we do.

For example, there is another argument in the Talmud about how this love should be shown. Lord Rabbi Sacks explains it this way:

“Just as there is overreaching in buying and selling, so there is wrong done by words . . . If a person was a son of proselytes, one must not taunt him by saying, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” because it is written “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him.” Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: verbal wrongdoing is worse than monetary wrongdoing, because of the first it is written “And you shall fear your God” but not of the second. Rabbi Eleazar said: one affects the person, the other only his money. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said: for one restoration is possible, but not for the other.”

According to Sacks “Oppression,” they concluded, meant monetary wrongdoing, taking financial advantage by robbery or overcharging. “Ill-treatment” referred to verbal abuse – reminding the stranger of his or her origins. This may be the reason we are told that once someone converts to Judaism, we are not allowed to remind them that he or she is a convert.

Sacks to asks the question why welcoming the stranger is so important, “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” (emphasis mine)

That’s it. We are commanded to love the stranger because we are all created b’tzelim elohim, in the image of G-d. G-d is the stranger. The stranger is us. The stranger is G-d who is each of us. It is a dance.

All of us are entitled to be loved. To feel G-d’s love. This is the answer to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is why we are commanded to “Love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” With all your everything. And this is what G-d requires of us, “To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with G-d.”

It is simple, no? Apparently not so much or G-d wouldn’t have to repeat it so many times in so many different ways.

I set out to develop a list of all the 36 references, commandments to welcome and love the stranger. It seemed particularly important at this time to do this deep Torah text study. I did not come away with a list of 46 or even 36 references. Perhaps the Talmud was speaking in hyperbole or metaphor. Since we don’t have their exact list, it is hard to know what specifically they were counting. If you count the references in the whole TaNaCH then I am closer.

I am not sure ultimately that was the point. Clearly this was of critical importance both in the Torah and to the rabbis. It is the central teaching of Judaism. There is no way around that. Nothing else has been given as much weight. It is what makes me proud to be a Jew and it reminds me of Edmund Flegg’s quote.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of my all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel, the world is not complete, we are completing it.
I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because, above the image of humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

I came away with something much deeper. The appreciation of just how important this commandment is. Particularly in these times. Particularly in these times with threats, real or imagined, of deportations and registries.

We have been here before. We were strangers in a strange land. We have always been strangers in a strange land. Abraham was a stranger. And he and Sarah welcomed strangers, guests, to their tent open to all four sides. Moses was a stranger. Jacob was a stranger. He was sent out. Ruth was a stranger. From her otherness, and willingness to join us, by her lineage King David was born. By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept because we were strangers in a strange land.

Because of this wandering, because we understand the soul of the other, because we are the other, we have the obligation to treat the stranger with respect, care and love. This was the dream of Jacob, the angels ascending and descending, moving between the realms. The Torah and subsequent literature makes this very clear.

This is Jacob’s dream. This is the Makom I want to live in, the Makom I want to help build. A Place filled with G-d’s presence.

Chanukah is coming. The season of rededication. Of bringing light to the world. At this season, this is what I dedicate myself to. Loving the stranger who is everyone. Loving ourselves as ourselves for ourselves. Loving our neighbors as ourselves. Loving myself who is a stranger. Loving the stranger. Welcoming the stranger. With joy!

For anyone wishing to study the text, the full list of texts is available as an appendix upon request.

The Joy of Christmas. The Joy of Tikkun Olam

This convergence this year of Christmas and Chanukah has made me think deeply. While standing at the grocery store late yesterday afternoon I had a conversation with the person in front of me in line. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “Merry Christmas,” I replied. He continued, “Aren’t you glad we can say Merry Christmas again?,” he asked. “I never stopped,” I answered.

And it is true. As I write this, I am waiting for my family to awaken, to the joys and thrills of Christmas morning. Yes, me a rabbi. I love Christmas. And it doesn’t make me any less Jewish.

Let me explain. My ancestors came to this country as refugees in the 1840s. They carried some of their Christmas ornaments with them. They were assimilated German Jews and Christmas trees were important to them. Three ornaments remain and they are wrapped carefully in the basement, a legacy and an inheritance for my daughter.

I grew up celebrating Christmas. The secular traditions. Trees. Santa. Presents. Christmas dinner. Family. One of the last things my father, of blessed memory, did, was hang ornaments on the tree in Grand Rapids. That tree proudly displayed a business card from my rabbi. A sign that it was “kosher” even though no other Jew I knew in Grand Rapids had a tree. Shocking? Not really.

Many Jews have “celebrated” Christmas through the years. Some parents didn’t want their kids to feel left out. Others intermarried and embraced new to them traditions. Rabbis, historically railed against them. This was precisely the assimilation that Maccabees fought against. This year as Jews and Christian both pause to celebrate our separate holidays, I was noticing less tension, less guilt about Jews and Christmas. It had seemed that Jews has once again worked out their angst. That there really isn’t a “December dilemma.” Until that grocery store conversation.

After my father died, my brother and my mother made the pilgrimage to northern Michigan, to Charlevoix, to my cousin Laurie’s house, who has become the Christmas queen and the BEST hostess together with her husband Richard. They made gingerbread houses. Did lots of shopping in a quaint little town. Ate lots of yummy food and a tradition was born. I was not there that first year and I was bitterly homesick. This is the 20th anniversary of that gathering. And I am not there this year.

There are all kinds of traditions up north. Prime Rib night. Christmas Eve shopping. Bagels and lox brunch with supplies from Village Bagel in Larchmont, NY. lWhitefish sandwiches at the Villager. Soup Night. A trip to see Santa at the real North Pole. (Santa waits for me before setting out on his journey for me to bless the sleigh.) A Christmas afternoon movie. A big Christmas dinner with all the fixings. Some years are different. When the girls were little we had Christmas Eve tea parties with their dolls. Some years Chanukah overlaps with Christmas and we all crowd into the kitchen to light the menorahs. One year we saw deer walking down Laurie’s street. Were they reindeer? One year I gave everybody world peace (I wish that were really true). One year it was a sleigh ride. One year Christmas was a Beach. Another for the dogs. One year we convinced my granddaughter that the red lights on top of cell towers were really Rudolph and we had to drive quickly to beat him to the North Pole. One year everyone had stomach flu. (22 of us!). It is never easy to get there in winter. There is a hill just as you are about driving that is always snow covered. As I write this, I am tearing up. Missing family and friends. And Richard’s cooking.

Christmas morning is always magical. And there is always something that appears under the tree that no body can explain. Santa? Perhaps.

This may surprise you. Santa and Elijah are similar. In some Jewish houses, Elijah actually does more than sip wine at Passover. He delivers gifts to people who welcome him in and offer him food incognito. From a peddler’s sack. Or a horse and a wagon. Sound familiar, no?

My favorite children’s story for Chanukah is “Just Enough Is Plenty. OK, truth be told, I have many favorites. But this one tells the story of a poor family that doesn’t have enough for dreidl gelt or sleigh rides. But they manage to stretch what they have to welcome aunts and uncles for traditional latkes of potatoes and onions. After all, Just enough is plenty, the mother keeps reminding them. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. They welcome in this mysterious guest. Offer him laktes. Remember, just enough is plenty. He gives the kids a couple of coins to play dreidl with and joins them. He spends the night. In the morning, he is gone but his pack remains, with a book of tales about Elijah and enough fabric to jumpstart the father’s tailor business. Remember, just enough is plenty.

That is the spirit of Elijah. The spirit of Saint Nicholas. Giving gifts to the needy. Welcoming everyone. Sharing resources. It is the joy of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is the joy of gathering sparks of light together.

Some years we have worked at a Christmas dinner. Other years we have adopted a family from an “angel tree.” Some years I have spent being a chaplain in a hospital so others can spend the day with family.

This year I had the opportunity to play Santa (or Elijah?). For real. The house next door to the synagogue had a fire. Two families are now homeless. 13 people. 9 children. Less than a week before Christmas. Everything gone. Clothes. Shoes. IDs. Food (smoke seeps in an contaminates even canned goods, I learned). The police had asked us to open the synagogue that night, in the middle of the night, to be a warming shelter. Our president did so graciously. Gave the kids toys and cookies. Gave the firemen food and water. But our commitment as a congregation did not end there. We have now distributed about $2000 in gift cards, collected quickly and anonymously so that these families can begin to rebuild their lives. We were not the only organizations or individuals to step up.

It is what neighbors do. We are commanded to “Love our neighbors as ourselves.” We are commanded to follow in the ways of G-d. To clothe the naked. To feed the hungry. To visit the sick. To comfort the bereaved. To bury the dead. To be like Elijah. Or Maimonides who taught us much about tzedakah. Maybe even Santa.

I have learned a lot this week. There is an emergency housing gap in the City of Elgin. We are now working on that. Charity doesn’t always get given out equitably. And maybe it shouldn’t. I am still thinking about that. I am also thinking about my investment. If this had happened on the other side of Elgin, would I care as much? Is that fair? Is that right? It is common.

This year there was a serious fire in downtown Charlevoix and the shopping would have been different. I hope for those business owners. This year there is a family wedding in Los Angles over New Year’s and I didn’t think I could be away two weekends in a row. This year with Chanukah starting at the exact same time as Christmas, I didn’t want to leave my congregation for all of Chanukah. People get lonely this time of year. Jews do feel really isolated.

This year I noticed all the old popular Christmas songs that say, “Happy Holidays.” Bing Cosby singing, “Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays.” Frank Sinatra singing, “Happy holidays. May the merry bells keep ringing, happy holidays to you.” There is no war on Christmas, despite some news media attempts to create one. Jews may prefer it if you say, “Happy Chanukah” if you know they are Jewish and celebrate. It is more personal.

As for me, wish me “Merry Christmas” and I will wish you one too. A Christmas filled with light. With peace. With compassion. With love. Where there is enough food for everyone to enjoy. Where just enough is plenty. Where all people are free to celebrate with family and friends however they choose.

All religions have this belief in compassion in common .To me it doesn’t matter whether you celebrate Chanukah or Christmas or winter solstice or something else. It matters that you collect the shards of light and make the world a better plac.. May the convergence of these two holidays this year remind us of our sacred duty, to repair the world, together. Together, we add light to the world and we add holiness and joy.

Maybe lighting the lights together can bring peace. That is my solemn hope.

At the darkest time of the year, this is a season of lights. The lights on houses and trees. The lights in the windows. The lights of the menorah. As light begins to return, may this be a season that is filled with love, laughter and light. May there be a present you really, really wanted, something chosen with love. And a surprise or two. That just might be Santa or Elijah. Because just enough is plenty.

And if you are in northern Michigan, say hi to Santa for me. Tell him I will bless the sleigh next year. Save me some mushrooms Rockefeller, mashed turnips, corn pudding, a piece of pecan pie and one, just one of Richard’s delicious breakfast treats.

The Joy of Light

Today was a very special day at Congregation Kneseth Israel. Today, which was erev, erev Chanukah, we dedicated a new Ner Tamid, Eternal Light. It was an Eternal Light that the Macabees relit when they rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after the war in 165 BCE. The word Chanukah itself means rededication.

Throughout the Shabbat morning service I wove in references to dedication and light. The new Ner Tamid, created by artist Claude Riedel in Minnesota is even more beautiful than any picture can do. And his reason for crafting such beauty only adds to the beauty. His grandfather was in Kristalnacht in Germany in 1938. Claude’s personal mission is to take shards of broken glass and fuse them together, creating more wholeness and more light.


Light has a power in Judaism. When G-d made the world, G-d made it full of light. G-d made the sun and the moon. G-d made the stars. The Jewish mystics teach that G-d’s presence filled the whole universe. To make room for creation, G-d first took a deep breath, contracting Himself. In that contraction, all was dark. When G-d said, “Let there be light,” there was light and G-d saw it was good. That light filled ten holy vessels but that primordial light was too bright and it shattered the vessels. The holy sparks were scattered everywhere. We exist to bring those sparks back together again. That is what tikkun olam, repair of the world, means, reuniting the divine sparks.

There is another place where there were shards. After Moses smashed the first tablets of the 10 Commandments, the midrash teaches that the Israelites placed the shards in the Holy Ark together with the whole set of tablets. Estelle Frankel in her book Sacred Therapy, said, “Sometimes we learn to appreciate life’s gifts only after we have lost them.” Ultimately, Frankel concludes, “the whole and the broken live side by side in us all, as our broken dreams and shattered visions exist alongside our actual lives.”[1]

The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Each time they would set up a mishkan, a portable sanctuary, a dwelling place for G-d. This is where they would meet G-d. As a sign of G-d’s Eternal presence, the Shechinah, there was a lamp. Mishkan and Shechinah have the same root in Hebrew. That lamp was carefully attended so that it was always lit. It was like Lucy’s sign. The doctor is in. If the light was lit, then G-d was in.

There are exacting details of how to make the light, all of gold. This tradition continued in the First Temple and the Second Temple. When the Assyrians desecrated the Holy Temple, the Maccabees fought back.

When I took a class on liturgy with Larry Hoffman he told the story of a woman who explained that light is the symbol of the divine. He wondered how did she know that. She answered it is on page x of the old Union Prayer book. The responsive reading for candle lighting says…
“Come, let us welcome the Sabbath. May its radiance illumine our hearts ad we kindle these tapers. Light is the symbol of the divine. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Lithgt is the symbol of the divine in man. The spirit of man is the light of the Lord. Light is the symbol of the divine law. For the commandment is a lamp and the law is a light.”

She had memorized the reading and internalized the message. Maybe we all have. The rabbis had it right. There is no question that light is powerful. That light brings joy. The new research on seasonal affective disorder would back them up. The more light, the better people feel.

That brings us to Talmud. Last night we talked about the first question in the Talmud. From when can you say the morning Sh’ma. It all has to do with gradations of light. Perhaps when you can distinguish between blue and white, or blue and green, or between a wolf and dog or an ass and wild ass. Or if you can distinguish a friend at the distance of four cubits (Berachot 9b) Light, as you can see, is very important, in how we pray.

I have here a print out of all of the laws of Chanukah in the Talmud and in the Shulchan Arukh, the way the law eventually got codified. We are not going to go through them all but they are available for reference.

The first one is an argument between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. How do we light candles? We know this one. By adding one candle each night. That was Rabbi Hillel’s opinion. But Rabbi Shammai had another idea. He thought on the first night we should light eight and reduce one each day similar to the offerings during Sukkot. The argument of Hillel won because by increasing the light we increase our holiness and our joy. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

There are a couple of other important laws on this page of the Talmud. The commandment of Chanukah is to light one light per household. The zealous kindle one light for each member of the household. Yes, that would include every member of the household. Men and women. Why are women obligated to light Chanukah lights, even if it is a time bound mitzvah which women are usually exempt from? Because as the Shulchan Arukh explains, it was because of the women that the miracle happened. In fact, two other things about women and Chanukah. Men, this is important. It is the custom that women do no work while the Chanukah lights burn. So, you are not suppose to start eating until the women are sitting. Really. Also, it is the custom to eat cheese during Chanukah because of the role that Judith played.

Finally, we are supposed to put the chanukiah in the window—or in the courtyard, for all to see, in order to publicize the miracle. Unless it is a time of danger. Then it is sufficient to have it on the table.

This is not a time of danger, although some have argued that it is. So our menorah, not yet a chanukiah, is in our window here. With just the shamash lit. I want you to understand, really, really understand, how each of you is that holy vessel, a clei kodesh, for the divine presence, the divine light that is the connection between light and soul.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram, one of my professors, has written a lovely candle meditation that I shared with Earl Sternfeld’s class last year. He and Debbie rewrote it slightly for a Hadassah Havadalah and it is now on her website.

Sit comfortably. Can everyone see the candle in the window. Stare at it gently. Focus on the flame. “In Your light, we see light. B’or-khah. Neereh Or. In Your light, we see light.”

Look at the candle flame.

The first level of soul is nefesh. The blue core of the flame. This is where you sense your soul and body connect. Place your hand where you sense your soul and body are most connected.

The yellow band of the flame is ruach, the level of your emotions. The layer of anger, joy, sadness, your feelings.

The orange band of the flame is neshamah. You are more than your feelings. You have another level of your soul: your personality, thoughts, memories, opinions, innovations.

The next level, the black farfrizzlings, is the hardest to see, I think. The Chayah, life itself, represents your intuition. This is the quality of the soul that helps you to stay alive during the times when it feels you are crawling on the ground with your fingernails just to survive, to tolerate the sometimes pain of life.

The candle’s heat and light, yechidah. Hard to know where this begins and ends. The is where your soul is unified and undifferentiable from all Being, from G-d. This is where you occupy space in creation. You are needed and particular and contribute uniquely. You are that holy vessel, the clei kodesh, holding the divine light, the divine presence in your very body. Like the unity as the drop of water with the ocean, the leaf is with the tree. You are part of that original light of the divine.

Look carefully at the candle flame, squint softly. Almost close your eyes. Notice whether the light is pointing somewhere. Where is it pointing? When you are ready, open your eyes and return to the room.

After we read Torah, as the introduction to mourner’s Kaddish, I reminded people that my favorite Chanukah song is “Light one candle,” by Peter, Paul and Merry. “What is the memory that’s valued so highly that we keep alive in that flame. What’ s the commitment to those who have died that we cry out they’ve not died in vain.” That became our kavanah.

Light. The power of light. The joy of light. The joy of being in sacred space and sacred time.

[1] Frankel, Sacred Therapy, Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness, Shambhla, Boston, MA, 2005, page 43

Vayishlach: The Joy of a Gift. The Joy of Wrestling

Our Torah portion starts today with the word, “Vayishlach.” “And he sent.”

What did he send? He sent messengers. Those messengers hearken back to the messengers from last week, malachim, ascending and descending the ladder. He sent a message that he was coming. This is no surprise attack. Then he sent gifts.

Why? Was he trying to appease his brother? Trying to protect himself? Trying to save his own life? Remember, when last we saw the brothers today, Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright, and Esau had promised to kill him. Jacob, at the urging of his mother, ran away to Laban’s household. That was 20 years ago! That is a long time to hold a grudge. But Jacob was nonetheless afraid.

This is the season of giving. Most of us will probably give or receive more than one gift this holiday season.

Why? Some of it is because of the gifts that Jesus received in the manger. You wouldn’t show up at a birthday party empty handed. The wise men brought the baby Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh. My colleague, Rabbi David Paskin, himself a singer songwriter, on a cold December day stood outside the old Academy for Jewish Religion back on 86th Street in New York and explained, his favorite Christmas Carol was “Little Drummer Boy.” The Little Drummer Boy gave a gift from his heart. All he had. A song.

Think back to your favorite gift that you received. What was it?

While Chanukah did not start as a gift giving season, that has become a tradition. Whether you give gifts to the children for 8 nights or handle it some other way, there is now an expectation that the children get gifts. I don’t believe it is just the close proximity to Christmas. I think it is more like the portion we have today. Gift can be a symbol of love.

In our house presents came for Christmas, not for Chanukah. For Chanukah we got a Jewish book and some gelt. One year I remember the bike. One year I remember the Chrisie doll that had hair that “really” grew. One year I remember ice skates and roller skates so no matter what the weather we could skate that morning. These were carefully chosen presents. Chosen with love.

But gifts can’t buy you love. That’s what we learn from the Beatles:

Can’t buy me love, love
Can’t buy me love

I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend
If it makes you feel all right
I’ll get you anything my friend
If it makes you feel all right
Cause I don’t care too much for money
For money can’t buy me love.

I think that many of our favorite gifts are not tangible. They may be gift of time. The gift of creating memories. The gift of heart. The gift of comfort and solace.

G-d gives us gifts too. Life, the Torah. Solace, Peace, Comfort. As people then said, “Everything.”

What are the gifts that we bring here, to make this place a holy place? Again, people said, our whole-heartedness, our attitude, our time, our service.

Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, wrote a song, “Holy Place” about those very gifts:

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

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

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

But did Jacob’s gifts work? With thanks to Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky who pulled these quotes for his own d’var Torah this week, maybe yes and maybe no.

“Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.” (Proverbs 26:17) Nahman bar Samuel said: This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path, when a man passed and woke him up, saying, “Get up, for there is danger here.” At that he arose and began beating him, at which he [the victim] cried out, “[God], rebuke this wicked man!” “I was asleep,” he retorted, “and you woke me up.” So too did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to him [Jacob]: He [Esau] was going his own way, yet you did send to him, saying, “Thus says your servant Yaakov.” (Gen. 32:5) [Genesis Rabbah 75:3, trans. modified Soncino]

I think this is saying that Jacob should have left well enough alone. In this case it would seem the gifts were not effective.

A later commentary, from the Ramban, had this to say:

“In my opinion this too hints at the fact that we instigated our falling into the hand of Edom [Rome] for the Hasmonean kings during the period of the Second Temple entered into a covenant with the Romans, and some of them even went to Rome to seek an alliance. This was the cause of falling into the hands of the Romans.” (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, trans. Chavel)

Gifts can change the balance of power. And not always for the better. I grew up learning we should never be a guest at someone’s house and go empty handed. But when I traveled with AJWS to Guatemala we were told to leave the gifts at home. The agencies we were visiting would think they needed to reciprocate and that would put them in an unfair advantage or an awkward position.

At this stage, Jacob doesn’t know whether his gifts will work or not. He puts his wives and children, his riches on one side of the river and crosses over. It is a great piece of military strategy. He will meet Esau alone. He will take that risk alone. He needs some time alone. To think. To pray. To gain courage. It is not quite clear what he is doing there.

Being alone is another gift. But sometimes it can be disturbed by wrestling.

Again, he seems to be in a dream like state. And he wrestles with…who? Himself? A man? An angel? The text calls him a man but the commentaries have lots of ideas.

How many of you have wrestled. With brothers or sisters? Frequently that’s the first wrestling around we do. Or arm wrestling? Finger wrestling? Leg wrestling? We used to have a game called “Saturday morning wrestling.” It was always a chance to blow off some steam.

My spiritual director used to tell me that when I was having difficulty sleeping, when something was really gnawing on me, that was G-d. G-d was trying to tell me something and I should pay attention. A G-d moment. Wrestling is part of the journey. We all do it at some point.

Jacob asks for a blessing. Oh, the irony. The one who tricked his father out a blessing for his brother now wants a new one. And he is given one. And a new name. Israel. Yisrael. One who struggles with G-d and men and prevails. Wrestling becomes a blessing. Wrestling creates a new name. We are all children of Israel, descendants of Jacob. We are all G-dwrestlers.

The ability to dream, to bless, to wrestle are gifts. That is what this place, this very space is. Our sanctuary, our mishkan, is a holy place. A Makom, filled with the Divine Presence, where we can dream and bless and wrestle. Where we can find comfort and solace. Where we can celebrate and mourn. This is what Jacob realized when he said, “G-d was in this place (makom) and I did not know it. “Makom she-libi ohev. The place that my heart holds dear. Sham ragali molikhot oti. There my feet will bring me near.” (Mishnah Tractate Sukkah)

Jacob and Esau meet in the morning. They appear to reconcile and then they go their separate ways, in peace. How can we understand this story in light of the tragedy that is continuing to unfold in Aleppo? How can we understand Aleppo in light of this story? That we must continue to wrestle. That we must continue to be peacemakers.

The midrash, again supplied by Rabbi Pitkowsky, tells us that it is this very portion we need to read to learn how to negotiate:

“Rabbi Yehonatan said: Anybody who wants to placate a king or ruler and doesn’t know their ways and ceremonies should place this parashah in front of them and learn from it ceremonies, behaviors, and placations.” (Midrash Lekah Tov, Vayishlah, 32:5)

After we finished most of musaf, I read the prayer for Aleppo written by Rabbi David Greenstein:

M’rahem `al ha-aretz – M’rahem `al ha-b’ri’ot
You, Who has Compassion on the Earth – You, Who has Compassion on All Creatures
We are overwhelmed as we look upon the carnage and suffering wrought upon the city of Aleppo and its surrounding regions.
And we are appalled that we, your children, are capable of inflicting such suffering upon our own brothers and sisters with heartless cruelty.
We are afraid that our prayers are too feeble and too late to stop the death, the pain and the destruction.
And we are anxious that our own spirits will drown in a sea of despair and hopelessness as we confront the enormity of human evil, human loss, human desperation and human apathy.

Please help all who are suffering to find relief and safety.
Please help those who courageously work to offer aid.
Please help all those who may be able to halt the death and the destruction of life and earth.
Please help us overcome our debilitating thoughts and feelings so that we may become Your agents who treasure every single life and who will create, identify and embrace every single opportunity, however small, to beat back evil and sustain mercy and life.
Rabbi David Greenstein

Then we rose for Kaddish. Using a song that Rabbi David Paskin wrote, after the death of his daughter, my blessing for each of you is”

“Hamakom…may the One who fills all space
Hamakom give us hope and give us strength
Hamakom…be with us and be with them
Hamakom yinachem etchem.”

May the One, The Place comfort you.