Finding Joy in Blindspots and Multiple Truths: Shelach Lecha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What just happened here?

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

It must, therefore, have some truth in it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Joy in Pluralism and Argument: Korach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Joy in Memory and Counting: Shabbat Bamidbar

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

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

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

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

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

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

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

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

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

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I had a rabbi moment.

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

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

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

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

Archibald MacLeish wrote this poem:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joy of the Earth: Shabbat Shimini

Last year I had an argument with a congregant in the middle of a sermon. It’s OK. Jews argue. We talk about two Jews and three opinions. A lot. It was Passover and I was talking about the prayers Geshem and Tal for rain and dew. It was also Earth Day. I was explaining that as Jews we have an obligation to take care of the Earth and that the mandate is sprinkled (Pun intended) throughout our literature.

He argued that climate change isn’t real. I was dumbfounded. So now on Earth Day this year I want to reply. I come by this very naturally (again pun intended). My father was an ecologist. He helped organize the original Earth Day in 1970. He spent countless hours arguing for good science. With the Field Museum, with the Evanston School System, with East Grand Rapids High School. He spent countless hours fighting for our environment before it was cool. He spent countless hours renewing himself in the woods on Northern Michigan.

So this year, on Earth Day, I want to tell the story of Honi the Circle Maker, in memory of my father, in hopes for the future.

You know about Honi. We tell this story almost every Tu B’shevat. Honi lived in the 1st Century BCE, in the Second Temple Period. One day, Honi was journeying on the road in Northern Israel and he saw a old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the old man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi was amazed and asked, “Are you sure that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I have already found carob trees growing in the world; as my ancestors planted for me so I shall plant for my children.”

That is the story for Earth Day. We are the generation caught between our ancestors who planted for us, who were caretakers of the earth for us and our children and our children’s children. This is Earth Day, and on this Earth Day we read the story of Aaron when his sons were killed. Aaron’s response is silence.

But I cannot be silent when the future of our children is at stake. Psalm 30, the Psalm for the Dedication of the Temple asks,

“What profit is there if I am silenced. What benefit if I go to my grave. Will the dust praise You?”

When I was a kid, we didn’t use any aerosol sprays because my father was concerned about the ozone layer. We didn’t buy anything made by Dow Chemical because we were worried about Agent Orange. My father, as a scientist argued passionately for science, taking on the East Grand Rapids Schools who at least one biology teacher wanted to teach creationism along side evolution. “Evolution is a fact,” he argued. I never won an argument with him about religion. Not quoting Albert Einstein who apparently believed in G-d. Not Lewis Thomas who wrote a beautiful elegy, “The Lives of Cells.” Nonetheless, he knew that everything he did was within Jewish values and ethics.

So I cannot be silent. Too much is at stake. The very future of our planet maybe at stake. I believe it is about balance. I believe there is no conflict between Judaism and science. I believe that there is no conflict between Genesis and science. And I believe we have a responsibility to take care of this earth. To be partners with G-d in this glorious creation.

The Talmud in Ta’anit 19a teaches us another story about Honi. It is the story he gets his name from. Once there was a terrible drought in the land of Israel. It was already Adar, that usually marks the end of the rainy season, but much like this winter in Chicagoland with very little snow, there had been no rain all winter long.

The people begged Honi the Circle Maker to pray. He prayed, but still no rain fell. He drew a circle in the dust and stood in the middle of it. Raising his hands to the heavens, he vowed, “G-d, I will not move from this circle until You send rain!” It began to sprinkle, just a few drops. The drops hissed on the hot stones. The people were not satisfied and complained, “This is only enough rain to release you from your vow.”

So Honi prayed again, “I asked for more than this trifling drizzle. I was asking For enough rain to fill wells, cisterns, ditches!” The heavens opened up and poured down rain in buckets. The parched earth began to flood. The cisterns overflowed. There was too much rain! The people of Jerusalem ran to the Temple Mount for safety. “Honi! Save us! We will all be destroyed like the generation of the Flood. Stop the rains!”

Honi again prayed. This time for the rains to stop. They did and he told the people to bring a thanksgiving offering to the Temple. Then Honi again prayed, and said to G-d, “This people that You brought out of Egypt can take neither too much evil or too much good. Please give them what they want.” This is the Goldilocks moment. Not too little. Not too much. Just right.

Then G-d sent a strong wind that blew away the fierce rains and the storm calmed. Shimon ben Shetakh, the head of the Sanhedrin wanted to put Honi in cherem, to excommunicate him, for his audacity, but decided against it.

Honi is a little like Nachson Ben Aminidav. Nachson is the one who put his toe into the Sea of Reeds. He waded into up to his nostrils, the midrash says. Then the sea parted. He had faith and by his actions he demanded that G-d rescue the Israelites. He had audacity. He had courage.

This story would not be one my father would have loved—although he loved a good story and relished reading Zlateh the Goat, a collection of IB Singer stories out loud as the Chanukah candles burned down.

No, this story about the power of prayer, would not have been rational enough for his scientific brain. On the other hand—and this is Judaism, so there is always another hand—he might have. Not only is this about the power of prayer. It is also about the power of action. Only when Honi was in the circle he had drawn was his prayer effective.

The power of prayer. That’s what Friday nights, Kabbalat Shabbat are all about.

That’s what the Barchu, the formal call to worship, is about. As my students taught me this year, it is not just about calling us together for prayer, it is about demanding that G-d be present. Come, here, right now, G-d. It’s about Sh’ma Kolenu, G-d, hear our voice, demanding G-d to listen to us. Audacious.

Recently I had my own story of the power of prayer. My cell phone died. It wouldn’t reboot. The wireless company said I would have to wipe it clean and start over. The second store said the same thing—but maybe if I went to Apple they could do something. Getting increasingly anxious, I was on call as a police chaplain, I drove to the mall to the Apple Store. I pleaded that I needed my phone. That I was a rabbi. That I was on call. I was not leaving that store unless my phone was restored. (Politely, of course).

They were not optimistic. I followed them back to the genius bar. I stood there silently while the genius plugged in my phone. I put my legs together and stood straight up like I was davenning the silent Amidah. I held my breath. He said he would have to wipe it clean, was that OK. No, I wanted to scream but what choice did I have. He told me to say whatever prayer I had—that he had seen miraculous things happen. I wasn’t sure what the words were for a cell phone. I continued to hold my silence. He hit the button. In seconds, the phone was restored. All of the data was there. All of the contacts. All of the photos. All of the text messages. All of the applications worked. Perhaps all my silent supplications worked.

I can’t explain how my phone “resurrected”. It seems to be at that intersection between science and prayer. I can say that I have seen very powerful things happen that don’t make rational sense. I stood in awe with an ICU nurse as the blood pressure of a patient dropped when I sang Adon Olam. I stood in silence with my daughter’s pediatrician as his mother lay dying. Medical science had nothing else to offer, perhaps prayer would. She died on her own husband’s yahrzeit.

It is clear from our tradition, that we are commanded to be caretakers of this earth. To be partners with G-d in G-d’s glorious creation. That we are to fulfill the mitzvah of bal taschit, to not destroy.

So on this Earth Day I say. Don’t be silent. Our children and children’s children deserve no less. Stand in that circle and pray. Don’t just pray. Demand action. Be bold. Be audacious. Be courageous. That is the message of Honi.

The Joy of Hope: Passover and Resurrection

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…
Now hear the word of the Lord.”

You know this one. Sing with me. Actually I know two versions, both I learned at Girl Scout camp and both are appropriate for this morning.

I’ll admit it. I’m tired. Bone weary tired. Passover preparation, two seders, services last night and a full day of doctor’s appointments will do that. This morning’s portions address that weariness and bring me hope.

One year on this Shabbat of Passover I got a call from a dear friend, a fellow Hebrew School teacher, saying, “Margaret, I was just at a Bar Mitzvah, and you’re not going to believe the haftarah, it was all about resurrection—and tomorrow is Easter. Jews don’t believe in resurrection! I can’t believe what I was hearing.”

I calmly explained to her that Jews do believe in resurrection. In fact, Judaism is where Christians got the idea from.

So let’s start with this morning’s text in Ezekiel, Chapter 37—which clearly Jesus and his early followers knew.

It’s all about those bones rising again. About G-d breathing life into us, even if we are tired. About G-d restoring us to the land, the land of Israel that G-d promised our ancestors. Listen to the language about “son of man”. That’s one of the phrases that people called Jesus and that the officials used against him.

Ezekiel was an 8th century BCE prophet who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, the restoration of Jews on the land and the rebuilding of the Third Temple. He brought the people hope. He brought the people G-d. He is one of the prophets from which we learn about Merkevah Mysticism, the Mysticism of the Chariot. We hear hints of it in the beautiful piyyut, the acrostic El Adon that we sing in the morning service, but Merkevah Mysticism is a story for another day.

The prophet Daniel shared this belief in resurrection: “Many who sleep in the dust shall awaken, some to everlasting life, and some to ever lasting shame and reproach” (Daniel 12:2).

In II Kings Chapter 4 we have the story of the rich woman of Shunem. She provided a room for the prophet Elisha, where he could rest and revive himself while he was travelling. Several years later, her son complained about his head and then died. She sent for Elisha, who came, and revived her son, resurrected him by breathing new life into him. It sounds exactly like CPR.

So you can see, the underpinnings of resurrection exist throughout our later Biblical writings, our prophets. Christianity’s adoption of it, should not come as a surprise and be seen within the historic context of Judaism and Christianity’s Jewish roots.

But it doesn’t end in the Bible. In the beginning of our Amidah prayer, in the G’vrurot, which acknowledges G-d’s power, written by the rabbis of the Talmud, we say these ancient words outlined in Berachot 23a, “Atah gibor l’olam Adonai, machayah matim. You are powerful forever, giving life to the dead.” For a while the Reform movement was not comfortable with that language and changed it to machayah hakol, giving life to all. The newest Reform prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah, has put back the option for machayah matim. If you want more detail on how our prayerbook evolved, Rabbi Larry Hoffman’s excellent commentary, My People’s Prayerbook will help

Maimomides, the Rambam, 1135-1204, the Torah and Talmud commentator, philosopher, physician and astronomer, compiled the first code of belief, the 13 Articles of Faith. Sometimes, given the time period he lived in I think it must have been a polemic against Christianity—or at least a vey clear statement of his beliefs. The very last one is the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

  1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.
  2. The belief in G‑d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.
  3. The belief in G‑d’s non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.
  4. The belief in G‑d’s eternity.
  5. The imperative to worship G‑d exclusively and no foreign false gods.
  6. The belief that G‑d communicates with man through prophecy.
  7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.
  8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.
  9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.
  10. The belief in G‑d’s omniscience and providence.
  11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.
  12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.
  13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Many congregations recite these after each weekday Shacharit, the morning prayers.

We sing the 13 Articles in a more poetic form on Friday nights in the Yigdal prayer which says in its last verse, “God will revive the dead in His abundant kindness – Blessed forever is His praised Name.”

That’s hope. That’s power. G-d will revive the dead and give us life.

It is good to study Rambam today, this Shabbat of Passover. Many Jews of Sephardic origins, particularly those from Morocco celebrate Rambam with a special feast the night after Passover called a Mimouma. Some believe it celebrates Rambam’s yahrzeit. Believe me, if you have an opportunity to go to one, do not miss it. They excel at hospitality and their cooking is out of this world—well beyond our usual pasta feasts after Passover, but how they do it so quickly after sundown is a mystery to me! Part of that Passover magic. That’s hope.

This is a season that is about freedom and transformation. It is about rebirth and renewal. It is about hope.

It is not surprising that Christianity took the concept of resurrection changed it, making it more an individual reviving the dead. This seems less likely to me. In Judaism these kinds of things are usually collective. Our understanding of the messianic age is a collective. We are more concerned with the saving of the nation of Israel than individuals. Our prayers, for the most part are written in the plural.

One of my favorite books is the Active Life by Parker Palmer, an activist, a poet, and a bit of mystic within his Quaker roots. This book shows the necessity of a balance between spirituality and activism. He tells the story of activism from each of the world’s major religions. The last chapter is called, “Threatened by Resurrection”, which is a poem written by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet in exile and published right here in Elgin by the Church of the Brethren Press. I talked about it in my Skype interview because I found the poem so powerful.

When I went to Guatemala I took the book with me and used it as part of a teaching I did about this very topic. When I tried to print it out in a Hilton Garden Express hotel in Guatemala City I was blocked, censored. The concept of Threatened with Resurrection still too revolutionary.

Threatened by Resurrection:
They have threatened us with Resurrection
There is something here within us
which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
which doesn’t stop the pounding deep inside.

It is the silent, warm weeping of women without their husbands
it is the sad gaze of children fixed there beyond memory . . .

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!

Because at each nightfall
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings for years,
we continue to love life,
and do not accept their death!

In this marathon of hope
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary . . .

Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!

You will know then how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected.

Julia Esquivel

Parker Palmer is so eloquent about this poem: “For Esquivel, there is no resurrection of isolated individuals. She is simply not concerned about private resurrections, yours or mine or her own. Each of us is resurrected only as we enter into the network of relationships called community, a network that embraces not only living persons but people who have died, and nonhuman creatures as well. Resurrection has personal significance – if we understand the person as a communal being – but it is above all a corporate, social and political event, an event in which justice and truth and love come to fruition.” (152)

The very last verse we read in Ezekiel today is about that collective resurrection and it is on the exit gate to Yad V’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. One way to look at resurrection is to see the rebirth of Israel as a resurrection, a collective resurrection We walk out of the destruction, out of the horror of the Holocaust, back into the light, back into the land. Our bones, those very dry bones live again. The breath of G-d lives again within us, breathing new life into us.

Have you ever noticed the Israeli medics in their bright yellow vests after a terrorist attack? They are sadly collecting all of the parts that remain so that each victim can have a full and complete burial. It is that hope of resurrection, of life everlasting.

There is a connection to today’s Torah portion. Probably more than one. For me, it goes back to what I said at the beginning. Remember I said that I was bone weary tired. So was Moses. In today’s Torah portion, just after Moses has smashed the 10 Commandments. G-d demands that he go back up Mount Sinai. Moses doesn’t want to go. Why should he? Why should he lead this stiffnecked, stubborn people? In a masterful argument, he pleads with G-d and reminds G-d that this is G-d’s, not Moses’s people—and besides what will the Egyptians think. The argument works—and G-d promises that G-d will go with Moses and give him rest and lighten the burden. G-d renews that promise in Psalm 81, “I removed the burden from their shoulders;  their hands were set free from the load.” G-d has lightened our load. G-d has given us rest.

Hope. Resurrection. Life everlasting. That is what today’s parsha is all about.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones with be watered, refreshed, revived, and brought back to life. These promises bring me hope.

Harvesting Our Joy: Counting the Omer Day One

Tonight is the first night of the counting of the omer. 50 days between now and Shavuot. Seven weeks of seven days. Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates first fruits and the giving of the law at Sinai. It solidifies our freedom that we celebrate this week.

For decades I have planted winter wheat or winter rye with students at Sukkot and then watched as it miraculously, magically grows starting at Passover and fully heading out by Shavuot. It is a wonderful tradition I learned from Rabbi Everett Gendler. It ties the agricultural nature of the Jewish holidays, especially the pilgrimage festivals, together. This year was no exception. But this year, for the first time ever, no winter wheat.

Counting the omer is something that has often appealed to me. It is a spiritual practice, a discipline. It seems simple. Count 50 days. Sounds simple, no? Remembering to count every day is hard. Looking at the underlying spiritual and mystical roots is harder. The mystics tie each day to a different soul-trait. Week one is all about chesed, lovingkindness.

This year we needed a new idea. Harvest our joy. It fits nicely with finding joy which we have been studying all year. 50 days of photos, images of happiness. Each of these will then be printed on 4×6 paper and hung in the CKI entrance way.

I will start with one. Simon loves everything University of Michigan. He was the student manager of the football team one year in college. We watch every UofM football game and many of the basketball games. For him the Big House is the Promised Land. This past weekend he had the opportunity to run a 5K which ended on the Michigan 50 yard line. Here is Day One’s Image of Joy.

FullSizeRender (1)

The Joy of Cleaning the Refrigerator

I woke up singing a song.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” a song from Godspell, a line from Mark 1:3, borrowed from Isaiah.

You may think this is odd. A rabbi singing a line from the Gospel. But I can’t shake it. It is so appropriate today for two reasons. This is Shabbat HaGadol—the Big Sabbath. Usually we tie the name of this Shabbat to the end of today’s haftarah, “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.” It’s not a great translation. Yom Adonai, Hagadol, v’Hanorah.”Maybe better, The great and awesome day of the Lord. The verse with its reference to Elijah hints at Passover that is coming. It hints at the Messianic era and a world to come that will live in peace. It hints at our need, our responsibility to prepare for the day of the Lord.

The second reason is that this is one of two Sabbaths that in the old days, the rabbi would give a sermon. Today is the day you all would learn how to prepare for Passover. If you need all of the details, read my email from earlier this week which will direct you to the OU site. You can also check the CRC site and I am happy to answer any questions. I even have a book about the 1001 Answers to Passover questions. So far I have answered questions about stand mixers and Passover towels. People really do care about these things and they want to get it right. But there is more to the preparation than the physical labor.

Prepare. How do we prepare? One way is to search out the leven, the chamatz, that we have. You know the drill. Cleaning and scrubbing and pitching. It is spring cleaning on steroids. And since only you men are here, I can only assume that your wives are home working, and that you will go home and help. Please, go home and help.

That physical labor is important. Simon finds dish washing meditative. I am not sure I do, but as I was cleaning the refrigerator, and scrubbing the schmutz off the shelves and then boiling them, I was thinking about Simon’s meditation.

Lot going to lie. My first thought was “Why am I doing this?” Then I wondered, “What is the purpose of cleaning the fridge?” “How does it help us prepare?” “How does cleaning the fridge make me a better person?”

And here are my answers.

I do it because once a year my house should be sparkling. I do it because it links me to my people, friends all over the country who are doing exactly the same thing. People in generations past, long ago—maybe not their iceboxes—yes we called it the icebox and I still, occasionally make ice box cake, but not for Passover! I do it because we are commanded to prepare for Passover, to rid our houses of leven. Commanded. That’s the word for the day. Tzav. In the imperative form.

The mediation cleaning the fridge continued.

I am really luck to have this refrigerator. It is the one I have always wanted. With double doors and a freezer on the bottom. It is easy to clean and arrange with enough space. Many people in lots of parts of the world don’t even have a little refrigerator. And yet again we are wasting too much food. Almost an entire garbage bag went out. Even after our emphasis on feeding the hungry. Many people have significantly less than we do.

Leven—yeast. Things that rise. Things that are puffed up. Things that take up more space. Last week we talked about the humility of Moses and the humility of the lowly letter alef.

Matzah is the opposite of things that are puffed up. It is the bread of affliction. The poor bread. Lechem oni. The bread of humility.

Humility is one of the soul-traits that mussar talks about. The first one that we should study. I have spent years studying mussar and am still not there yet.

Rav Kook says that humility is associated with spiritual perfection. But it is subtle . The key factor, is honest accuracy, according to Alan Moranis who teaches courses in American mussar.

I have always wondered about people who sit in the same spot every week. I thought maybe it is a little arrogant to assume that seat belongs to you. Sometimes even rude if you say to a newcomer—hey that’s my seat. How warm and welcoming is that? But then, while studying humility with Alan Moranis, I understood. Someone who sits in a predictable place makes room for others to occupy their own space too. Therefore, Alan teaches, humility is occupying just the right of space in life that is appropriate for you while making room for others. Humility is not an extreme quality, but a balanced moderate accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life. It is not being chamatz. It is not being puffed up.

This is the beginning of the spiritual preparation of Passover.

Today’s parsha also talks about humility. When G-d commands Moses to tell Aaron about the ritual of the burnt offering, it needs to be kept burning all day and all night. Moses has to take a back seat. This is about Aaron and his children, the priestly class.

Myron and I had a good conversation about this. When he read these lines, his eyes lit up and he proclaimed, he knew he had a job to do— to keep my fires burning. to keep me enthusiastic. He based it on the note at the bottom of page 613 in our chumash, Etz Hayim, “The congregation, for its part, must recognize its responsibility to see that the enthusiasm and dedication of the clergy is never extinguished.” What a lovely, lovely thought.

Yet there is another message as well. The high priest has a job. To keep those fires burning. Night to morning. Morning to night. Each and every day. Every morning, he is to take off his holy vestments and take the ashes outside the camp to the “pure place,” nothing more than the ash heap. Essentially, he has to take the garbage out, each and every day. Just like everybody else. This way, he can never forget his link to the mundane. It kept him humble. It keeps us all humble.

I have a good friend, Dr. Lisette Kaplowitz, who is a retired principal of an elementary school and a reading specialist. When Sarah was about to start kindergarten I took her to Lisette’s school and she introduced Sarah to everyone. The first person she introduced Sarah to was the janitor. Mr. So and So, I want you to meet my good friend Sarah. Mr. So and So cleans my school. I can’t run my school without him.” It was a powerful lesson. For Sarah and for me. I can’t run CKI without Lljuban, without Susan, without Peg, without all the talented volunteers who help make this place run day in and day out. Lisette’s lesson was so dignified and so humble. When Lisette retired every single janitor showed up at her retirement dinner. I know. We sat at their table.

This week I read a story about the college admission process. An admissions director for Dartmouth received a letter of recommendation from the school janitor. She was surprised. It was unusual to get a letter of recommendation from the janitor. But this student stood out—to the janitor and now the admissions counselor—because the kid would talk to the janitor, clean up after himself and others and urge others to do so. Bottom line—he was kind, he was humble, and yes, he got into Dartmouth.


Rabbi Everett Gendler used to say that a rabbi is nothing more than someone who moves tables and chairs and in New England (maybe Chicago) turns the heat on. It kept him humble. It keeps me humble. I thought about that as I moved tables this week and helped set the tables for the community seder. Congregants, here and elsewhere, often argue that it is not my job to do so. Nor take out the trash. But those tasks are critical to the work of the congregation, to building community. They are about meeting people where they are.

Kindness and humility go hand and hand. Rabbi Sacks in his weekly sermon talks about what enabled the Jewish people to survive. We are commanded to make sure the perpetual light, the eternal light, the ner tamid never goes out. Yet, we no longer have animal sacrifice. What is this sacrifice? Is it still necessary? What keeps it from going out today?

The Israelites managed to figure out five things that replaced the sacrificial system.

The first was gemilut chasidim. Acts of love and kindness. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told Rabbi Yehoshua, “My son, we have another atonement as effective as sacrifice, acts of kindness, as it is written (Hosea 6:6) I desire kindness and not sacrifice. (Avot deRabbi Natan 8)

Acts of kindness. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that this week. I talked to the kids about G-d leading the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Go ahead, just like the kids do it. Make a strong hand. Now reach out and touch someone. That outstretched arm is the helping hand. If it is outstretched and not clenched, it cannot be a hand of warm. It is the hand of kindness, the hand of friendship, the hand of humility.

Rabbi Sacks rounds out his list with Torah study, prayer, teshuvah, fasting, hospitality. Each of these helps us connect authentically with the divine, since there no longer is sacrifice.

He teaches that what is remarkable is “rather than clinging obsessively to the past, sages like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thought forward to a worst-case-scenario future. The great question raised by Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not “Why were sacrifices commanded in the first place?” but rather, given how central they were to the religious life of Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?”

For the rabbis, the sacrifices were metaphors, “symbolic enactments of the processes of mind, heart and deed.” They were designed so that the people could draw close to G-d. So that they could experience the indwelling presence of the Divine, the Shechinah. It doesn’t happen when we are not kind to one another.

The Haggadah is designed for us to tell our children what the Lord did for us when G-d led us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. All of the preparation. The scrubbing, the cleaning, the cooking is designed to get us to ask some pretty important questions.

  1. Why is this night different?
  2. How do we rid our lives of chamatz?
  3. What is the narrow place we need to be freed from?
  4. How can we be humble, kind, loving, hopeful?

As part of my spiritual preparation I always read a new Haggadah. This year I chose two, the (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah which I really enjoyed, even though I am not especially a Harry Potter fan. It has plenty to say about chametz. And the Ayeka Haggadah Hearing Your Own Voice. This one is really helping me with my own spiritual preparation. Every page has a different question to answer. Like “What was one holy moment in your journey this year.” Ultimately it is about finding ourselves in the story, in the journey.

The very act of cleaning the fridge is an act of sacrifice. It keeps us humble. It helps us meditate and find the Divine. It gives us the space to begin to answer the real questions of Passover.

The Israelites were freed from Egypt. Next year in Jerusalem. Next year, all the world redeemed. That’s what Isaiah and Mark meant when they said, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Cleaning my refrigerator helps prepare us, physically and spiritually.

The Joy of the Little Alef or The Little Alef that Could

Today we start reading the book of Leviticus. In Hebrew we call it Vayikra, We translate it as “And He called” but have you ever looked at how it is written in the Torah? Also in our Chumash, the Torah Commentary and in the Tikkun that I practice from. The last letter is a very little alef. Take a look. It has been this way for two thousand years and no body really knows why. The little Hebrew note in the Chumash can be translated as “according to received tradition”.

This little word, with its little Alef, teaches us much. Even today.

As Rabbi Len Levin, a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion reminds us, there are two issues with this word. The first is that the clause is missing a subject. “Vayikra el Moshe.” We usually translate this as “And he called to Moses.” Who called? Perhaps as the Kabbalists suggest it is G-d, perhaps “Ehyeh”. I wonder about the word “el” which can be translated as “to” but the very same word can be translated as G-d and the usual direct object marker is “et”. Rabbi Levin points out that modern scholars suggest that it completes a sentence at the very end of Exodus, thus linking the books together. “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting (that portable mishkan) because the Presence of the Lord (Shechinah) filled the He (the Lord called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting.”

I like it.

The second issue is that little Alef. Now we know that Alef is the first letter of the Alef Bet. And we know that it is a silent letter. The rabbis have a field day with what this little alef could mean. I call it the “Little Alef that Could.”

Rabbi Levin teaches that his favorite is Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440-1508) who taught in his commentary Tzeror Hamor that the small alef is that “Moses because of his humility, distanced himself from assuming authority and would run away and make himself small until G-d had to call him.” Or perhaps it is because Alef is the first letter of the word “Anochi—I” and therefore represents a small ego. Both these teachings seem to be about a leader with humility. It reminds me to turn around and look at our ark. “Da lifney mi atah omaid—Know before whom you stand.” That phrase strives to keep me humble as I lead the congregation in prayer. It is something Moses certainly knew.

And I will tell you something else. I once flunked a Bible exam about where I had to translate a passage about Moses and humility. I translated something as “Moses was humbled” because I knew that it was the past tense. But apparently there is a difference between “Moses was humble” and “Moses was humbled.” “Moses was humble” implies an internal state of humility. “Moses was humbled” is something I was trying to say happened to him at the hands of Aaron and Miriam.It was a humbling experience.  I still think you could read that text either way.

But I want to tell you two more stories about Alef. The first is from the Zohar. It has been illustrated by Ben Shahn and called the Alphabet of Creation. All the letters of the Alef Bet present themselves before G-d and begs, entreats G-d that G-d should use that very letter to create the world. This parade of letters begins with Tav, the last letter of the Alef Bet. After all the very word Tov, good, begins with Tav and so does Torah. Each letter is rejected, until Bet presents himself. Bet is given the honor because Baruch, Blessed begins with Bet. So the world is created with the word, Bereshit. In the beginning. But what about Alef.? Why did Alef not present herself? Alef answers G-d, “All the other letters have presented themselves before Thee uselessly, why should I present myself also? And then, since I have seen Thee accord to the letter Bet this precious honor, I would not ask the Heavenly King to reclaim that which He has given to one of his servants.” G-d responded, saying, “Oh Alef, Alef. Even though I have chosen the letter Bet to help Me in the Creation of the world, you too shall be honored.” And so G-d rewarded Alef for her modesty, her humility, by giving her first place, the first letter of the 10 Commandments.

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

We also learn from the Zohar that the whole Torah is contained in the letter Alef. This really is the little Alef that could.

But there is more. Usually we think that most of Leviticus is addressed to the priests. It is all about the sacrificial system and the role of the priests in executing it. It is about drawing the people closer to G-d. One of the words for sacrifice, Korban, actually has the same root as draw close. But there are two notable exceptions to this speaking to the priests. Right here, right at the beginning it says, “And He called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, saying, Speak to the Israelite epople and say to them…” Speak to all of them. Not just the priests. That means that G-d calls you. In the Haftarah we learn that G-d chose us. While some are uncomfortable with Jews being the chosen people for fear that it sounds like we are better than everyone else, we still hear echos of that in our Torah blessing—who chose us among all people, and in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer. I always liked one of my Bar Mitzvah students understanding of this that while G-d chooses us, we choose G-d.

Nonetheless I think that G-d does call and G-d does choose. Even today. Every year I buy a Haggadah or two for my collection. This year I bought the Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah and a small little volume called the Ayekah Haggadah, Hearing Your Own Voice. Ayeka means “Where are you?” and it is the question that G-d asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is the question that is asked each of us as we confront the Passover story and place ourselves in it. Where are we? Where are we on our journey? What is the narrow place we are being called to leave? What is the place we are called to be? Each of us is to see ourselves as experiencing the miracle of the Exodus. Each of us must tell our child on that day, what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt. Oh, and Ayeka begins with the letter Alef.

Frederick Buechner taught that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

So close your eyes for a minute. See if you can hear G-d calling to you. Ayeka—where are you? Vayikra. What does G-d want you to do? What is G-d calling you to do? (Hold silence here)

What does G-d want you to do? Micah thought it was simple—“To do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d” (Micah 6:8)

One last thought as we prepare for Passover. This portion teaches that no grain offering can be made with any leaven, chamatz. As we rid our homes of chamatz and scrub our kitchens clean, the harder job is to rid our selves of spiritual chamatz. Chamatz is a metaphor for being puffed up and taking up more than our rightful place. It is the opposite of humility.

There you have it. The little Alef that could. May this be a Pesach were we are humble but not humbled, where we can hear G-d call to each of us, and where we can find ourselves going forth from Egypt, out of the narrow spaces of our lives.

The Joy of a Magical Passover

Passover is my husband’s favorite holiday. He loves the words of the seder. He likes the rhythm of the seasons. The rebirth of spring. The clarion call of social justice and freedom. The food.

Every year we try to do something a little different. This year we need a little magic.

Magic, you say. You bet. The plagues were magic tricks. Pharaoh’s change of heart might have been a magic trick. The Angel of Death passing over. BIG magic trick. The parting of the sea was a giant magic trick. Getting the matzah balls done at the right time and be fluffy may be a magic trick. Keeping the kids awake? The afikomen disappearing? Elijah appearing? Having enough room at the table is always something of a trick.

Once I remember making the waters of the Red Sea part in a bowl. I no longer have the recipe.

Maybe my collection of magic wands and pixie dust will help. I just bought The (Unofficial) Hogworts Hagaddah. Perhaps there will be something in there.

There is a kit to add magic tricks to your seder. And a PJ Library book called Passover Magic.

So I have some questions. Four. It’s Passover.

  1. What is the most magical place to have a seder? (I vote for the Adventure Rabbi in Moab UT, although I have never been!)
  2. What was your favorite seder and why? What made it magical?
  3. What elements of magic can you add to your seder this year?
  4. What food for the seder can you make that will be magical?

Send me your ideas and I will incorporate them into the Community Seder at Congregation Kneseth Israel on the Second Night, April 11.

Passover should be celebrated with joy. It should be fun. Sometimes we make it too complex. Maybe the magical moment is having everyone gathered around the table. Maybe it is using paper plates so clean up is magical. Or the kids proudly asking the Four Questions. After all, one of those questions asks us why on this night do we recline, to relax. The answer is because we are free.

Maybe this Magical Passover will be just what this rabbi orders.

Other Passover offerings at CKI:
Fast of the First Born Study Session and Breakfast
8:00 AM April 10th
Come finish learning about the Joy of Welcoming and then join me for the last chamatz breakfast at Arabica Café. We will be done by 10! You don’t have to be a first born, you don’t even have to be Jewish. Just come learn.

Second Night Community Seder: A Magical Passover
6PM April 11th.
Get your RSVP in. They are due March 31st (That’s tomorrow!)

Kabbalat Shabbat Services with special Oneg Shabbat:
7:30 April 14

Shabbat Morning Services with special Kiddush:
9:30 AM April 15

Omer Study Project:
Immediately after services and Kiddush until 1PM on Saturdays, for seven weeks
Finding Joy: A Practical Spiritual Guide to Happiness. We will spend the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot reading this book that gives us a very Jewish framework for finding joy. Each week’s reading is short with some exercises to try, or not, during the week.

Yizkor Services
8:00 AM April 18

Sisterhood Post-Passover Pasta Event
Details to follow

The Joy of Debate: Who is the Wicked Child and Shabbat HaHodesh

Today is Shabbat HaHodesh. It marks the beginning of the month of Nissan, the month of Passover. Passover, even though it falls in the seventh month is another new year. Today’s maftir portion tells us about the preparation for that first Passover. How to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts. How G-d will pass over the houses so marked. How to eat lamb together with matzah and maror.

The Passover seder is set up to get our children—and our chidlren’s children and their chidlren’s children to ask a question. A simple question. Why? What is this service to you? Why is this night different? Why are we doing this? Why? Stephanie Marshall who is teaching our Alef Bet Hebrew told me this week that she wrote a master’s level paper on why a seder was the best lesson plan ever. The rabbis really understood pedagogical methodology. Kids, of all generations remember the Passover story. Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the American Jewish community. It has staying power.

One part of the seder, shortly after the Four Questions, are the Four Children. What I want to do this morning is look at how various Hagadot treat the Four Children. I don’t know about you—but I always figured out how to read the Wise Child section as a young girl. I know I didn’t want to be the wicked child or the simple child or the one who didn’t know how to ask. OK—so maybe that was the Wise Guy child.

There are lots of versions of the Four Children. They have been debated throughout the generations by rabbis and by people at every seder. One of my favorite haggadahs is “This Different Night”, partly because it shows many illustrations through the generations of the Four Children. (I passed around my falling apart copy of this Haggadah and I ordered a new one after Shabbat).

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev adds this to the discussion: “The one who knows not how to ask, that is myself, Levi Yitzvhak of Berditchev. I do not know how to ask you, Lord of the world, and even if I did know, I could not bear to do it. How could I venture to ask you: Why…we are driven from one exile into another, why are foes are allowed to torment us so much? But in the Haggadah, the parent of the one who does not know how to ask is told, ‘It is for you to disclose the answer to the child.’ And the Haggadah refers to the Torah in which it is written, ‘And you should tell your child.’ ‘Lord of the universe, am I not your child? (Even if I cannot begin to formulate the question, you, Lord, can begin to answer them for me.)”

This morning I want to talk about the “Wicked Child”. There are several interpretations of the wicked child. The first that makes sense to me is that each of us, is each of these children. So from time to time each of us is the wicked one, the black sheep of the family, the rebellious teenager perhaps, or the one who gets frustrated with synagogue politics and backs away or just doesn’t show up. I don’t know if that makes you wicked.

We are told that the wicked child is the one who separates himself or herself from the community. That has never resonated with me. Isn’t the wicked one right here in our midst, sitting right here at the seder, arguing with us?

On the Chabad website—yes, I read that too, I found an in-depth analysis of the Four Children that really resonated with me. I am excerpting it here, and it was excerpted from Yosef Marcus, who recently edited a new Haggadah:

He points out that the Haggadah mentions the wicked one right after the wise one. He teaches that the wise cannot ignore their “wicked” siblings, since we are all responsible for each other. This idea is not new. It is part of the story of Cain and Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer was supposed to be, “Yes!”. We sing it in Psalms—“Hiney Ma Tov. How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together.”

Yet, this text adds a more spiritual dimension. “Every Jew is like a letter in a Torah scroll: If even one letter is missing, regardless of what that letter is, the holiness of all the letters is compromised. Similarly, the condition of the entire nation is dependent on each individual…the wise should not imagine themselves so far removed from the reality of the “wicked.” The “wicked”—the potential for self-destructive distractions—is the immediate neighbor of the wise.”

Ultimately, he concludes that we need to learn to embrace the “wicked child.” Perhaps because the wicked child is us.

It is like Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Few are guilty. All are responsible.” This is not a “blame the victim” idea but the idea that we look deep within and learn. Pirke Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” For years that was my email tag line. We can learn even from the wicked. And sometimes what we learn is about ourselves. How do we conduct our seders, our lives, our communities so we don’t push people away and turn them into “the wicked child”?

This week, we experienced something as a Jewish community that was so unexpected; it is difficult to talk about. The wound is too deep. Too fresh. I think this story of the Four Children helps.

This week we learned of the arrest of a 19 year old Israeli-American teen who is alledgedly responsible for the rash of JCC bombing threats. Why would a Jewish youth do that to other Jews? What would make him so disgruntled that he would put so many Jews at risk? Some have said that he had a mental illness. Others have said that he had a brain tumor. Others have said that he didn’t get drafted into the Israeli army.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions here. I am not sure that we should label this teen ager “wicked” or “mentally ill”. I always worry about that kind of coverage. We do not want to demonize this individual or all people with mental illness. However, he does seem to fit a pattern of children who feel isolated, who feel bullied, who want to strike back, who have removed themselves from community.

Those of us who are gathered here today are the ones who have not removed ourselves from the community. We have chosen to be here. It may even be true that we want to be here. That we derive meaning from being here. And that is a good thing. It is like the rest of our Torah portion where G-d tells Moses to tell the people of Israel—all the people of Israel—even the women—to build the mishkan, that portable, wandering sanctuary in the desert. That sacred place, where G-d and the people of Israel meet. Everyone whose heart was so moved who wanted to bring a gift, a freewill offering, brought gifts. And it was enough.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they were a mixed multitude. It is important to remember that fact. We are commanded to love the stranger amongst us. Even as our own communities continue to be threatened from within and without, we need to stand up and be counted. .

Today, we need to strive so that everyone’s gifts—material, spiritual and volunteer hours are accepted, appreciated and valued. Today we need to strive to make sure that every person feels welcome. We need to look deep within and make sure that we are caring for everyone. Perhaps then we will not have people who feel the need to separate themselves from the community.